The Appeal Podcast: What’s Changed Since The 2018 Prison Strike?
With Jailhouse Lawyers Speak spokesperson and Right 2 Vote national coordinator Amani Sawari
In August and September of last year, there were prison strikes in at least 17 states marked by work stoppages and hunger strikes. But what’s happened since? How have things improved or, in some cases, been made worse by the forces of reaction? As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the 2018 prison strike, our guest, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak spokesperson and Right 2 Vote national coordinator Amani Sawari joins us to discuss how the unrest of 2018 is being channeled into political reforms.
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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 always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page, and as always you can like and subscribe to us on Apple podcasts.
From August 21st to September 9th of 2018 there were prison strikes in roughly twenty states marked by work stoppages and hunger strikes, but what’s been the aftermath? How have things improved or in some cases been made worse by the forces of reaction? As we come to the one year anniversary of the 2018 prison strikes, our guest, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak spokesperson and nationwide coordinator for the Right 2 Vote campaign, Amani Sawari joins us to discuss how 2018’s unrest is being channeled into 2019 and 2020 as political reforms.
Amani Sawari: Though the entire prison strike demands are all about reforming the criminal justice system, demand number 10 to restore prisoners right to vote, we refer to that as the new suffrage movement because it’s not necessarily about reforming the criminal justice system. It’s more so about transforming the way that prisoners operate within that system. We want them to be a participant in making sure that the conditions of their environment meet their needs.
Adam: Thanks so much for joining us.
Amani Sawari: Thank you for having me.
Adam: Before we start, can you tell us quickly about what Right 2 Vote is and what the broad political objectives of the group are?
Amani Sawari: So Right 2 Vote is a prisoner led initiative to restore the voting rights of all citizens that are impacted by incarceration inside and outside. So Right 2 Vote is unique in that we are fighting for prisoners on the inside to be able to vote while they’re serving their sentence behind bars. Though the entire prison strike demands are all about reforming the criminal justice system, demand number 10 to restore prisoners right to vote, we refer to that as the new suffrage movement because it’s not necessarily about reforming the criminal justice system. It’s more so about transforming the way that prisoners operate within that system. We want them to be a participant in making sure that the conditions of their environment meets their needs. We feel like prisoners should have a voice in the system that they are forced to be in. And there are a lot of other countries and parts of the world where prisoners are able to vote and we feel like the United States, the land of the free, should allow it’s incarcerated citizens to participate in the political processes that govern their lives regardless of how long they’re in, if they have a life sentence, if they’re violent or nonviolent. So that is the work of the Right 2 Vote campaign. And my work as a coordinator includes connecting people across the country together to work together. We believe that we can move forward faster together. So the cohort includes organizations in California. We’ve got Initiate Justice, Millions For Prisoners in New Mexico, Emancipation Mission in Massachusetts, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in New Jersey. Earn Our Vote in South Carolina, where I am in Washington you’ve got the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Civil Survival. So we’re connecting people across state lines to work together, to communicate, to strategize, to share their successes and their failures so that we can move together as a team and support one another and so I create that space for people.
Adam: So. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is an organization, you are their spokesperson during the national prison strike, we reported on the prison strike last year. We talked to Raven Rakia about it. That was during the strike. Can we talk about — or it was immediately after — can we talk about what the net result of that strike was, what the kind of progress report is on that? I know there was a series of demands, one of which was to vote. Can you tell us about the extent to which that strike helped change the narrative? Can you give us our audience a sense of what that was like?
Amani Sawari: Yes. Throughout the national prison strike prisoners worked together across state lines to raise awareness about their demands on the inside. This was completely prisoner led. They reached out to me and asked me to speak on their behalf to the media and I had no idea I’d be on the phone from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM Pacific Time. So it was incredible to see how much work the prisoners were able to do and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak what was really able to get themselves out there as a leadership group. A lot of people don’t feel like prisoners have the capacity to lead. They don’t think that prisoners are able to organize. And even with the restrictions on their communications, the threat of retaliation, just not being able to really speak out, they still made it happen. So we saw participation in 17 different states across the country: Washington, California, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, New York. We even saw participation in Maryland and DC, Massachusetts, and in Nova Scotia, Canada. We had prisoners writing us from Germany, from Israeli prisons. We have Palestinian prisoners write us in solidarity. So we saw a worldwide solidarity between incarcerated folks and prisoners. And so that we saw as a huge success. And another incredible success we saw was just a shift in public opinion about what prisoners had the capacity to do, about what they’re capable of and about what they deserve. We saw that prisoners were able to organize across geographic limitations. And we also saw the launch of the new suffrage movement, the Right 2 Vote Campaign. Number 10 was seen as one of the more ambitious or radical demands, asking for prisoners having the right to vote. But it actually grew into its own movement and it rose to the level of national importance to be discussed among presidential candidates for 2020. So we see all that as a success. And we also saw some successes when it came to the businesses and how they participate in prison communications. So we saw phone rates go down in certain states like Texas and Michigan prisoners’ phone rates went down to 26 cents per minute, which is a huge difference when you’re inside and you make a dollar a day or so. So it was an incredible movement to be a part of and I’m honored that the prisoners trusted me with communicating their ideas to the rest of the nation in the world.
Adam: So you make a point, and this is one of the big kind of a, for lack of a better term, propaganda battles, is you make a point in your literature not to make a distinction between so-called violent and nonviolent offenders. This is kind of rhetorically one of the big hurdles people in reform and abolitionists spaces have to get over, this idea that there’s this neatly defined violent or nonviolent and that violent are sort of to be left for dead and that we should only focus on the kind of pristine good, you know, the sort of one ounce of weed, lifetime sentence cases and and to really push forward a lot of these reforms you need to have both. In your experience from the people you’ve talked to, journalists, pundits so forth, how do you address this barrier? How do you get people to kind of shake the idea out of their mind that there’s this neat clean kind of moral tier system of prisoners and really push the idea that every one of them, regardless of their transgression, deserve or alleged transgression, deserves some baseline human dignity.
Amani Sawari: Yes. So that is a huge fight that we have when we fight for marginalized people is to try to change the status quo and present a new narrative about how we should think about this group of people. You mentioned my literature and I also wanted to mention that an aspect of the Right 2 Vote campaign is the Right 2 Vote Report. So that’s a monthly report that goes out to all of our supporters on the inside on our mailing list. So you got a few hundred men and women on the inside who get this newsletter and there’s no eligibility requirements. You don’t have to be a nonviolent offender, you don’t have to be a certain distance away from your out date. It goes out to anyone and everyone who wants to support us and be a part of this community. And so we want to make sure that we are not using the language of the oppressor to describe what our movement is about and what it’s for. Carve outs are always abused. When we carve out a group of people that line of who is included and who is not always extends further and further out to exclude more and more people. So if we are fighting for the most marginalized group — what I argue is the most marginalized group in our country: people in prison — who aren’t even allowed to speak for themselves or move about freely or take the programs that they want or get the job that they want. If we’re going to fight for this group of people, we as freedom fighters can not say, ‘okay, we’re going to draw a line between you all.’ The oppressor creates divisions among the masses in order to keep us from organizing effectively, so we cannot then again create divisions among ourselves. We are reinforcing oppressive standards of influence on a community by establishing and maintaining divisions. And these types of things are saying, ‘okay, this group of people is redeemable, but this group of people isn’t.’ We see this in prisons all the time. They create new standards to say who’s redeemable, who’s going to be best for this program because they have the capacity. Honestly, I think that everyone in prison is redeemable. Everyone in prison should have the opportunity to show that they want to become better people, that they want to be reformed. So when we block certain people out because of something that someone who’s now in his thirties or in his forties did when he was 16, we’re constantly keeping him in a regressive state. We’re not allowing him or her to show that they have progress. And in prison, you’re constantly reminded of the worst thing you’ve ever done. And we need to show people that they’re bigger than the worst thing that they’ve ever done, that they’re bigger than what they did a year ago or 10 years ago or 30 years ago, and that we trust that they can do better with their lives, and that we know that they have value beyond why they’re in prison. And so through the Right 2 Vote campaign, we’re fighting for people’s voting rights, but we’re also fighting for people’s humanity, we’re fighting for people to see the value in every single human being in our country and to show that they are redeemable.
Adam: So Right 2 Vote obviously has worked on infranchising incarcerated people, of all the sort of demands what about that demand to you seems almost like a first step? Is the general idea is that once prisoners have a political voice, they’ll become a constituency with some kind of purchase on the electoral process and that it’s kind of a necessary condition of any meaningful reform. Is that, is that why it’s a focus? Is it, is it sort of seen as a precursor to other reforms?
Amani Sawari: Yes, yes, I can agree with that. I really loved the right to vote demand because I felt like it was the perfect pathway to getting all the other demands. If prisoners have some political power, then they are able to shape their environment. They don’t have to wait for political officials to see their conditions as being important enough to address or to prioritize. They can make it a priority and political officials will now be held accountable for the conditions of prisons because now prisoners aren’t just free bodies that they can use for their seats. Now they are people that they have to be held accountable to like every other body that’s been given the right to vote that’s on the outside. So I really love this demand because I’m always looking for the umbrella that covers the most ground and I feel like Right 2 Vote covers the most ground. Yes, I agree with every single demand. I agree that all prisoners should have good wages, I agree that all prisoners should have access to Pell grants and that all prisoners should have conditions that are at least comfortable to a certain degree and that aren’t abusive and oppressive. And I think that the way that we can get there, aside from fighting the smaller battles currently within all these different states, but we can fight nationally for prisoners to have a right to vote so that they can fight with us, they can fight with us on the outside, they can really organize together politically and now we have to see their humanity. The corrections officials have to hand them a ballot and know that this person’s voice is just as important and just as influential as theirs when they go into the voting booth. And so there’s a certain level of human decency and respect that’s forced when we give prisoners the right to vote.
Adam: So what is the current state of strikes in prison? I know that the last one was organized by groups like IWW, who of course are very radical in nature. They’re obviously less focused on kind of electoral victories, at least in the short term. Was it seen as an effective tactic? And if so, is it, are we going to see more of these labor strikes and general unrest?
Amani Sawari: So a lot of prisoners were inspired by the national prison strike and really took a hold of the movement and made it their own. Even if they heard about it one day before the strike happened or in the middle of when the strike was going on, prisoners saw this as an opportunity to unite and to show their solidarity regardless of if they were what their label was, violent or nonviolent, or if they were in the general population or not. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak made a wide variety of ways that people can participate from hunger striking, which was the most popular and continues to be the most popular to walking out of your job, which was the most risky. And that continues to be the most risky because having a job in prison is considered as a privilege and not everyone has access to that privilege. And so prisoners have begun to realize that when they use their bodies as an asset in their struggle, which is really one of the only assets that they have is their own bodies, they can be heard by people on the outside. And the longer they put their bodies at risk, the more people will hear what’s going on and the more people will have interest and care about what’s going on. When people run across an article that says a prisoner hasn’t eaten for 10 days because of conditions in Colorado or because of communications conditions in Florida or Pennsylvania, then their eyes draw to that story and they want to know what’s going on because how could someone not eat for 10 days or 20 days? And it’s sad that prisoners have to put their bodies on the line to be heard. That’s why we’re fighting for prisoner’s right to vote because they shouldn’t have to sacrifice their wellbeing in such a way, we need to give them another outlet for voicing their concerns about their condition. And though there hasn’t been another national strike, and there have definitely been strikes in select prisons and then in different states against the condition.
Adam: So there’s been pushback on the efforts to get quote unquote “felons” to vote and Amendment Four in Florida has been or is attempting to be gutted by Republicans on some technicality. The general momentum appears to have been about expanding voting rights that has now suffered some setbacks in Iowa and Florida. What from your perspective are the challenges facing the movement, not just in Florida but in general? And then if you could finish off by telling us what groups that you’re excited about out there pushing back against these reactionary forces.
Amani Sawari: So this always happens with radical movements. The people in power try to do all that they can to maintain the status quo and limit newly established power. So what’s happening right now with Florida’s voting rights for ex-felons is exactly what happened in the suffrage movement with the Fifteenth Amendment. Black men were given the right to vote and then right after poll taxes were established. It’s what happened with the Fourteenth Amendment when blacks were given citizenship. Then there were these Jim Crow laws that came into effect to sort of revoke certain aspects of their citizenship. So we see this over and over again throughout history. And we have to remember that when we fight for our rights we have to fight to defend those rights and maintain those rights. And there are groups that are always willing to defend and maintain because no one fights years and years and years to get their voting rights and then they give up the next month because there is a poll tax now. No, we’ve been fighting for years, so we’re not going to give up on our success. This is our success and we’re not gonna allow it to be dismantled especially so quickly. So there are groups that are fighting to really defend felons’ voting rights and it’s already been widely called out. These are poll taxes, poll taxes that already have been considered illegal and unconstitutional. And so I really think that this isn’t going to last. However, there is going to be a convergence in Florida called Fight Toxic Prisons. And so they’re going to be talking about prisoners voting rights there. It is on Friday June 14th through the 17th. I’m going to be there on the 16th and the 17th, so at that convergence there’s going to be a meeting of the minds between abolitionists especially, civil rights organizers, suffrage organizers talking about what we can do to make prison conditions better for those that are there and to also talk about prison strikes and the movement, especially in the South, a lot of prisoners have restricted communications, especially in the South. Trying to get information out is really hard because every prisoner’s mail as to go through a mail room, it has to be checked for security threats before it goes out. And this happens with a newsletter all the time going in. It’s hard to get the newsletter to certain prisoners like prisoners who have been called a security threat because they don’t want them to know the valuable information and the valuable work that’s happening on the outside on their behalf. And so there are groups, I mentioned the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which I’m a part of, but there are groups within the cohort all across the country. I mentioned Initiate Justice, Emancipation Initiative, Millions for Prisoners, Earn Our Vote, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and we all work together. It doesn’t matter what state you’re in, I promise you there is a group that is working to fight for prisoner’s rights on the outside. And if you’re interested in being involved, please find that group. On sawarimi.org we’ve got a page, sawarimi,org/righttovote, you can see all the groups in the cohort. There’s groups in Illinois, Chicago Votes is fighting for prisoners rights and making sure that they currently have a bill to make the jail in Chicago a permanent polling location. I talked about Kentucky, New Mexico, New Jersey, South Carolina, Massachusetts. So we’ve got people in all of these states that are fighting for prisoners right to vote. And if you’re interested in coming to the Fight Toxic Prisons convergence, as long as you can get to Gainesville, Florida then you can come. It’s a totally free conference and it’s a great way to connect with people that are doing this work in Florida.
Adam: Absolutely. Absolutely. That all sounds great. I think this is a ton of good information. This episode’s transcripted, you can find it at theappeal.org if you need to double check any of those organizations we’ll have them all in there. Thank you so much. This was fantastic.
Amani Sawari: Thank you. Thank y’all for having me.
Adam: Thank you so much to our guest. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter pages, and as always you can subscribe and rate us on Apple podcast. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer is Matt Ferner. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll talk to you next week.