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‘There’s An All-out Manhunt’: A Strike Organizer Speaks From Prison

An imprisoned organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said prison officials are trying to identify those leading the strike.

An aerial view of Lee Correctional Institution, where seven prisoners were killed in an April riot.
Credit: Google Maps

‘There’s An All-out Manhunt’: A Strike Organizer Speaks From Prison

An imprisoned organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said prison officials are trying to identify those leading the strike.

Since the nationwide prison strike began on Aug. 21, prison officials have retaliated against those involved, monitoring correspondence and putting some prisoners accused of organizing in solitary confinement. It has been hard for those on the outside to get information about what’s going on.

The Appeal recently spoke with an incarcerated man in South Carolina who helped organize the strike. He said officials in his prison have made it clear they want to root out and punish those behind the action.

“Right now, we know there’s an all-out manhunt for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leaders,” Eddie (not his real name), a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), which organizes for prisoners’ rights, said in a call with The Appeal and other journalists. “They want to take our heads off. We’re not going to give them our heads. We’re not gonna let them destroy our movement. It’s not going to happen.”

The South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) said there was no strike in its prisons, and disputed the notion that it was looking for organizers. “We have not seen any evidence of the prison strike,” said Dexter Lee, interim communications director for the department.

In April, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak called for a national prison strike from Aug. 21 until Sept. 9, an action sparked by a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that left seven prisoners dead and injured at least 22 others. “The seven didn’t just die, they bled out,” Eddie said, a fact confirmed by the Lee County coroner. “We want everyone to remember the horrific conditions that brought these deaths about.”

Since the beginning of the strike, the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has reported strike activity in at least 10 states. In Ohio, two prisoners have reported that they are on hunger strike. In Indiana, prisoners in a solitary confinement unit initiated a hunger strike to protest inadequate food. In North Carolina, prisoners hung banners from their recreation yard.

Like many prison housing units in South Carolina, Eddie has been on lockdown since the riot in April. Eddie said prisoners in most units at his prison have been locked in their cells for 24 hours a day, only coming out to shower twice a week, with no outside recreation or sunlight. “We have steel plates over the windows so there’s definitely [been] no sunlight coming into the rooms [since April],” he said.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak members communicate to prisoners nationwide through publications, newsletters, and unauthorized cell phones, and with the help of their supporters. This was how prisoners learned about the national strike, and also how JLS knows which prisons have participated. To halt the strike, Eddie said, prison officials are trying to interrupt these communications. In South Carolina after the riot, prison officials began testing cell-phone blocking technology.

“I think that some of these prisons have been very effective with some of these measures they’ve been taking out as it relates to our communications,” Eddie said. “I’ve seen a drastic increase in confiscation of cell phones and stopping publication[s]. The way we usually communicate.”

Dexter Lee of the South Carolina Department of Corrections did not respond to a question by press time regarding the confiscation of cell phones. He said that 8 out of 21 facilities under SCDC’s control have “various housing units” on lockdown “for the safety of staff and inmates.” Regarding how many hours per day prisoners were kept in their cells, he said, “The exact amount time during a 24 hour period will vary depending on services such as mail, visitation, telephone calls, showers, medical care or other services.” He acknowledged that there were plates over the windows in some units “to combat contraband.”

The prison strike call-to-action outlined four activities prisoners could participate in—work stoppages, hunger strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins—to open the opportunity to all prisoners, not just the ones who work. Eddie said JLS members at his prison have been focusing on boycotting the commissary.

He said he hopes the strike will “raise awareness among the prisoners as to what the issues really are. What are the conditions that are shaping and fomenting the violence amongst us back here? And what are some of the issues we really need to be coming together on to address as a collective?”

Eddie places the blame for the state of America’s prisons on lawmakers at the state and federal level. “What’s happening inside these prisons, lawmakers created it. … They created these conditions,” he said. “If we keep on this same track, we’re going to have issues far worse than they’ve ever seen, far worse than Attica.” The strike is timed to end on Sept. 9, the same date as the Attica rebellion in 1971.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak members have decided to remain anonymous in their interactions with the public to try to prevent the type of retaliation launched against leaders of the 2010 work strike across six prisons in Georgia, as well as the leaders of the Free Alabama Movement, a group that helped call for a 2016 national prison strike and organized several work stoppages within the Alabama prison system. Several guards beat alleged strike leader Terrance Dean unconscious after the Georgia strike. “The system is not a game to be played with,” Eddie said. “The one thing [JLS] always said was don’t put your face out there, don’t put your name out there under any circumstances because if we’re doing five or 10 years [in a] supermax, there’s nothing [the public] can do” to prevent reprisals.

The strikers’ demands, which Eddie described as “the immediate problems we have right now,” include better-funded rehabilitation services, reinstating Pell grants, an end to racist gang-enhancement laws, an end to prison slavery, restoring the voting rights of all confined citizens, and an end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown people.

“For us, it’s just a matter of life and death actually, just to be blunt. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

New York Woman Imprisoned For Defending Herself From Abuser Seeks Mercy

Jacqueline Smalls was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a boyfriend whose ‘hands were his weapons.’ She now joins the ranks of criminalized survivors seeking clemency from Governor Cuomo.

Jacqueline Smalls (center) in a family photo with daughters Nikki Smalls-Williams (left) and Dawn Smalls (right).
Smalls family

New York Woman Imprisoned For Defending Herself From Abuser Seeks Mercy

Jacqueline Smalls was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a boyfriend whose ‘hands were his weapons.’ She now joins the ranks of criminalized survivors seeking clemency from Governor Cuomo.

On the night of Aug. 26, 2012, Adrian King stormed into the home of his girlfriend Jacqueline Smalls at 1512 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady, New York. In the two years that King lived with Smalls, he repeatedly choked her, leading to his arrest on multiple occasions as well as two orders of protection.  Soon after entering the apartment that night, according to Smalls, King attacked her again; this time, however, she fought back, stabbing King once, fatally.

Even though Smalls defended herself from a man with a well-documented history of abusing her—King once smashed her phone to prevent her from calling the police and she recalled that “my abuser’s hands were his weapons”—prosecutors from the Schenectady County district attorney’s office insisted that she did not have a viable self-defense case and charged her with second-degree murder. Smalls later entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter. In December 2013, a judge sentenced Smalls to 15 years in prison; she is incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s maximum-security prison for women.

Nearly five years later, Smalls, 55, is among an unknown number of survivors of abuse languishing in New York prisons. No government agency tracks the numbers of survivors incarcerated for defending themselves, but a 2007 study by the New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 67 percent of women who were admitted to a New York prison for killing a loved one in 2005 had been abused. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of incarcerated women reported experiencing abuse before their arrest.

Smalls is hoping that Governor Andrew Cuomo will grant her clemency and allow her to rejoin her family before her sentence ends in 2027.  Her 29-year-old daughter, Nikki Smalls-Williams, too is desperately hoping that the governor will have compassion for her mom. On Aug. 9, Smalls-Williams read her mother’s story aloud as part of the kickoff event for the #FreeThemNY campaign, which demands that Cuomo grant clemency to abuse survivors in New York prisons. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about her mother’s experience.

Smalls-Williams was 23 when her mother was arrested and detained at the Schenectady County Jail without bail. She was living about 170 miles away in Queens, but still made the long drive to visit her mother regularly. Only then did she learn about the extent of the violence her mother had suffered at the hands of her abuser. “She thought she could handle it herself by getting law enforcement involved, which obviously didn’t work out for her,” Smalls-Williams recalled. “Schenectady County failed her.”

Governors have the power to issue an unlimited number of clemencies to any person at any time. They can issue a commutation, or the shortening of a prison sentence, which allows either an earlier parole hearing or an immediate release. They can also issue a pardon, expunging a person’s criminal conviction altogether.

In 2015, Cuomo announced the creation of a clemency review initiative to identify people in the state’s prison system who might be worthy of commutation. Cuomo set stringent criteria for consideration, requiring a applicants to have been sentenced to at least one year in prison, to have already served at least half of that sentence, and to not be scheduled to appear before the parole board within the next year. So far, Valerie Seeley is the only domestic violence survivor to have been granted clemency by Cuomo, whose record on commutations is generally extremely poor. He has issued a total of 12 commutations since taking office in 2011, two of them occurring in 2017 and 2018. In contrast, California’s Jerry Brown has issued 84 commutations during his seven years as governor; 45 of those were granted in 2018 alone.

Smalls, now six years into her 15-year sentence, does not fit Cuomo’s strict clemency criteria. “Ms. Smalls is not yet eligible,” Cuomo’s press office stated in an email to The Appeal. “Once she is, her case will be thoroughly evaluated and evaluated on its own merits, just as every other case is.”

But Hafizah Omar, an organizer with Survived & Punished NYC who is working with Smalls, noted that Cuomo himself set these criteria and that “the governor doesn’t have to adhere to these criteria. He can free anyone at any time.”

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, meanwhile, has promised to “commute the sentences of survivors of domestic violence who are incarcerated for acts of self-defense” while criticizing Cuomo’s record on commutations.

Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David has previously said that the governor’s office was “actively looking at domestic-violence victims, as well as juveniles and elderly people in prison, to determine clemency.” It’s unclear, however,  if this is still the case. Cuomo spokesperson Colin Brennan recently told The Appeal only that “every clemency application is reviewed on a case by case basis and thoroughly evaluated. If there are similar cases, each one will be evaluated on its own merits.”

Smalls-Williams, however, is urging Cuomo to make good on his earlier promise: “Just send my mom home.”

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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.

A Rent-a-Center store in Niles, Illinois.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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.

On April 30, Nicolas Harmony spent the night in jail in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. The 23-year-old Chambersburg man missed a criminal court appearance and was picked up on a bench warrant. After paying a bondsman to post his $25,000 bail, Harmony was released the next day.

But Harmony’s case did not involve an assault or even robbery: His crime was falling behind on payments for his bed and washing machine.

In July 2016, Harmony went to an Aaron’s rent-to-own store near Chambersburg and purchased a bed. Soon afterward, he signed a contract with the company for a washing machine.

Court records do not state how much Harmony was required to pay for either contract. However, the least expensive bed similar to the one Harmony purchased currently sells for $1,400 through Aaron’s and requires a $124 monthly payment. The washer and dryer set with the lowest monthly payment has a sale price of a little more than $1,100 and monthly payment of $80.

In September, Harmony missed his monthly payment. But instead of sending his case to a collection agency, Aaron’s sought a private criminal complaint that was approved by Magisterial District Judge Kelly Rock alleging Harmony had stolen the bed and washing machine. He was then charged by the Franklin County district attorney’s office with a felony under Pennsylvania’s theft of leased property law which states that “a person who obtains personal property under an agreement for the lease or rental of the property is guilty of theft if he intentionally deals with the property as his own.” The statute is used by rent-to-own companies to turn the criminal justice system into their debt collector.

Harmony’s case was dismissed in June under a Pennsylvania court rule that allows for the imposition of court costs and restitution instead of a criminal conviction for the defendant. In Harmony’s case, he was ordered to pay Aaron’s more than $2,000 in restitution and over $200 in court fees and costs. A spokesperson for Aaron’s told The Appeal that “while we do not comment on criminal cases involving our customers, Aaron’s, following a 2017 review of its collections practices, has revised its policies to no longer pursue criminal charges against its customers for theft of service.”

Nonetheless, theft of leased property cases are commonplace in Pennsylvania. The Appeal reviewed all criminal dockets filed in the state in 2016 and found 610 cases charged under the statute largely stemming from rent-to-own companies including Aaron’s and Rent-A-Center.

“When [companies] are able to use the criminal justice system to enforce those debts and subject people they’ve already taken advantage of to criminal penalties, that to me is unconscionable,” Myesha Braden, director for the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told The Appeal. “That perpetuates mass incarceration. That perpetuates inequality.”

Braden said lenders should obviously expect customers to make payments on their loans, but that many companies make loan terms so burdensome it is nearly impossible for poor people to not default. 

Most people charged with theft of leased property in Franklin County end up having their charges dismissed if they agree to pay for the items—as was the case with Harmony—or return them.

Only three of 17 theft of leased property cases filed in the county in 2017 resulted in a conviction, The Appeal found in a review of criminal court records.

Franklin County District Attorney Matthew Fogal told The Appeal that the widespread dismissals of theft of leased property cases does not mean he opposes bringing the charge in the first place. He compared these cases to the writing of bad checks: “the victim simply wants to be made whole financially.”

But these criminal prosecutions can be costly to the county. In one case, Franklin County paid more than $400 to provide a Haitian Creole translator for a defendant whose charges ultimately were dismissed when he returned the items he had been leasing.

For defendants facing a theft of leased property charge, failing to pay back court debt can result in a  driver’s license suspension, an arrest, or incarceration.

The theft of leased property charges that landed Harmony in jail is the only criminal case filed against him in Pennsylvania, but unless he petitions and pays to have the records expunged, the arrest will remain on his record even though charges were dismissed.

And had Harmony been convicted of the felony offenses he was originally charged with he would have faced possible probation or imprisonment, as well as more than 300 collateral consequences, according to the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction.

For example, anyone convicted of a felony in Pennsylvania is ineligible to hold any job inside a school and can be denied educational financial assistance from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

”It’s kind of the unholy alliance between the criminal justice system and debt collectors,” says Braden.

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