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The success of the 2018 prison strike will depend on us


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: The success of the 2018 prison strike will depend on us

  • Did prosecutors use a ‘cheat sheet’ to strike black jurors in North Carolina death penalty case?

  • The endless punishment of civil commitment

  • Pennsylvania prosecutors pursue charges for people who fall behind on rent-to-own payments

  • Boston DA candidate who vowed to work to end mass incarceration wins primary

  • Murder trial of Chicago police officer who killed Laquan McDonald begins today

  • Ninth Circuit rules that arrests for sleeping on the street are unconstitutional

  • ‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’ didn’t show what 22 hours in solitary does to you

In the Spotlight

The success of the 2018 prison strike depends on us keeping our eyes on prisons

For the last two weeks, incarcerated people around the country have engaged in a coordinated strike, spanning federal, state, and immigration prisons in multiple states. The strike includes work stoppages, commissary boycotts, hunger strikes, and sit-ins. It began on Aug. 21 and is scheduled to end this Sunday, Sept. 9. The start date corresponds with the anniversary of the death of George Jackson, the Black Panther and prison organizer, and the end date is the anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising. Organizing for the strike has been led by people in prison with support from outside organizers. [Raven Rakia / The Appeal]

The call for the strike came after a prison riot at Lee County Correctional Institution in South Carolina in April left seven incarcerated people dead. It was the highest death toll from prison violence in more than a quarter century and was sparked by overcrowding, unbearable conditions, and guards fanning tensions between gangs. Guards waited hours to intervene, allowing the death toll to mount. The group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other organizers had been planning to call for a strike but moved the timeline up after the violence at Lee. A statement issued by the group said, “Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology.” [Natasha Lennard / The Intercept]

The strikers’ list of 10 demands includes an end to prison labor that pays little or nothing and amounts to “prison slavery,” improvements to prison conditions, the end of “death in prison” sentences, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and an end to gang enhancement laws. [Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee] Cole Dorsey, a formerly incarcerated person who played a key role in helping to organize the strike from outside the prisons, described it as “really a declaration of humanity. The humanity of imprisoned men and women.” [Interview with Cole Dorsey, Amani Sawari, and Heather Ann Thompson / Democracy Now]

Strikers and organizers know that their fight will have to continue long after the strike ends. A zine distributed by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee says, “Most of the demands are not actionable items that prison authorities are able to grant. … The goal is not to hold out and win negotiations with officials, but to last those 19 days and punch the issue to the top of the political consciousness and agenda.” [Toussaint Losier / Jacobin]

In this larger fight, people in prison will rely on the support of those of us who live outside prison walls. As Dorsey put it, “the only way their voices are going to be heard is through us on the outside amplifying their voices.” Amani Sawari, one of the prison strike organizers, shared ways to support the strike in the interview with Democracy Now, pointing to a list of solidarity actions available online and the purchasing power consumers have to boycott industries that use prison labor. [Interview with Cole Dorsey, Amani Sawari, and Heather Ann Thompson / Democracy Now]

It is because information on what goes on inside prisons is so difficult to obtain, and because the narratives are so heavily controlled by corrections officials, that it takes a weeks-long, national strike— organized and engaged in at enormous personal risk and with great sacrificesto bring sustained attention to this fight. The riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina was a clear example of the wide gap between the accounts of corrections officials and those of incarcerated people. Corrections officials described the fight as one over “territory, contraband and cell phones” and immediately promised to jam contraband cell phones in prisons. Yet because of contraband cell phones, incarcerated people were able to get out messages about the violence, the authorities’ hours-long delay in responding, and the conditions that had set the stage for the violence. [Heather Ann Thompson / New York Times]

Even with heightened media scrutiny, corrections departments deny the existence of strike actions in the facilities they control. But the scope of the strike has made those denials harder to credit. [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

Organizers of the prison strike this year see it is a success because there has been wide and sympathetic coverage of its aims outside traditionally left-leaning outlets, which is necessary for reaching the broader public. Writing in Truthout, James Kilgore said, “When the 2016 U.S. prison strike kicked off, the media barely whispered … an action that ultimately involved thousands of people in two dozen states drew virtual silence from mainstream media.” Amani Sawari, a prison strike organizer, noted how the tactics in this strike differ from those in 2016, with even people in prison who don’t hold jobs finding ways to participate through sit-ins, boycotts, and hunger strikes. A week into the strike she told Truthout that strike actions had been confirmed in 11 facilities and solidarity actions in 21 different cities. Because prison officials restrict communication to suppress information about strike actions, she said she expected to learn of actions in more prisons once the strike is over. [James Kilgore / Truthout]

Stories From The Appeal

Illustration by Richard A. Chance

Did Prosecutors Use a ‘Cheat Sheet’ to Strike Black Jurors in North Carolina Death Penalty Case? A single training document uncovered in a prosecutor’s files could save Russell William Tucker’s life. [Jacob Biba]

The Endless Punishment of Civil Commitment. Prosecutors can subject those convicted of sexual offenses to an indefinite period of civil punishment at the end of their criminal sentence. [Guy Hamilton-Smith]

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Pursue Charges for People Who Fall Behind on Rent-to-Own Payments. The state’s ‘theft of leased property’ statute allows prosecutors to seek felony charges for Pennsylvanians who miss payments on rental items. [Joshua Vaughn]

Stories From Around the Country

Boston DA candidate who vowed to work to end mass incarceration wins primary: In perhaps the most significant of yesterday’s District Attorney primaries in Massachusetts, Rachel Rollins won the Democratic primary for Suffolk County district attorney, becoming the first Black woman nominated for DA. If she wins the November general election she will be the first woman to lead the office, which covers Boston and neighboring towns. Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, ran on a promise to work to end mass incarceration and after her victory, committed herself to “true criminal justice reform…that decriminalizes poverty, substance use disorder, and mental illness.” DA races have historically been low-profile affairs but this year’s primaries were different. An ACLU volunteer told the Boston Globe that, “In my neighborhood, this race is clearly very important. I’ve never seen more yard signs for the DA.” [Maria Cramer / Boston Globe] See also Subscribe to The Appeal: Political Report for more information on specific races and the local politics of mass incarceration. Visit an updated database for more results from the Sept. 4 elections.

Chicago police officer goes on trial today for murder of Laquan McDonald: Jury selection begins today in the murder trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014 in a killing that rocked Chicago and, according to the New York Times, “laid bare decades of distrust over Chicago police officers’ treatment of black residents and over City Hall’s lack of transparency.” The city and Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to release the dashboard camera video of Laquan’s killing for more than a year, until forced to do so by a court order. That video showed Van Dyke opening fire only seconds after exiting his car, as Laquan walked away from officers, holding a knife, and continuing to shoot well after Laquan collapsed to the ground. Van Dyke maintains that he acted in self-defense. Emanuel, who resisted calls to resign in 2015, announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election as mayor. [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

Ninth Circuit rules that arrests for sleeping on the street are unconstitutional: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that arresting people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The decision came in a case brought by six homeless individuals in 2009 challenging an ordinance in Boise, Idaho, that banned sleeping in public places. At that time, lawyers for the plaintiffs said that 4,500 people in the city did not have a place to sleep and homeless shelters could only accommodate 700 people at a time. Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that, “just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not ‘criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless—namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.’” The case is expected to have implications for policies in other cities with high rates of homelessness. [Rebecca Boone / Idaho Statesman]

‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’ didn’t show what 22 hours in solitary does to you: Steven Jay Russell, whose life as a con artist and multiple prison escapes to rejoin the man he loved were chronicled in I Love You, Phillip Morris, writes about the part of his life that the film didn’t cover: the grim toll of decades in solitary confinement. Russell was brought back to prison in Texas after his fourth escape attempt, in 1998. He has been in solitary confinement ever since, subject to its “slow maltreatment of the body and mind.” Russell has known 21 men in prison who died by suicide and has “witnessed hundreds of self-mutilations.” Despite the support he received after the movie, he has “not been immune to the effects of 22-plus years of solitary,” and was diagnosed four years ago with recurrent major depression. Being restricted to a 6-by-9 foot cell for more than 22 hours a day has left his body so damaged that he can only leave in a wheelchair. [Steven Jay Russell / Huffington Post]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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