Why Prisoners are Striking Today
Prisoners are striking to end death by incarceration, prison slavery and poor living conditions.
Raven Rakia Aug 21, 2018
Prisoners across the country are launching a strike today, on the anniversary of the death of incarcerated activist George Jackson. Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party and a prison activist, was a leading voice and theorist in the 1970s prison movement — a time that saw over 300 uprisings behind bars. On April 24, prisoners in South Carolina announced the strike, which is expected to last for 19 days and ends on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York.
The call to action—created by members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina that organizes for prisoners’ rights—lists a variety of ways prisoners can get involved, including work strikes, sit-in protests, boycotts and hunger strikes. Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, said outside organizers have heard of plans or wishes to strike in 17 states (but out of fear of retaliation, the states will not be named until after Aug. 21). Over 150 organizations have expressed solidarity with the strike, including BYP-100 and the NYC Jericho Movement and solidarity rallies outside prisons have been planned in at least 10 cities.
With the announcement of the strike, prisoners also released a list of 10 demands that included improving the conditions of prisons immediately, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, restoring the voting rights of all confined citizens, an immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws, ending death by incarceration, and rehabilitation services for all prisoners, including violent offenders.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law passed under President Bill Clinton in 1996, places barriers and restrictions on prisoners trying to file a federal lawsuit including requiring prisoners to go through all administrative grievance processes within their prison before filing a case, not waiving court fees, limiting litigation costs that can be paid to the prisoner’s attorney after a successful lawsuit, and restricting court cases that allege only emotional or mental harm. The result, is a lack of access to the courts for prisoners when their constitutional rights are violated. JLS is calling for the law to be rescinded.
Their second demand, which reads: “an immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor,” has been a theme in work strikes over the past five years and speaks to a JLS slogan, “#Abolishthe13th,” referencing the 13th Amendment of the constitution.
In an interview with Shadowproof, a JLS representative incarcerated in South Carolina described prison as a continuation of slavery. “I can remember my great-granddaddy and them, they were talking about it. Prison is slavery. They never really referred to it as prison or as jail, they referred to it as being forced back onto the plantations again. This is something we’ve always understood. Of course, as things evolved more, the system evolved, it’s a little more sophisticated, and you know people tried to change the language and there was a disconnect.”
Another demand, ending death by incarceration, targets lengthy prison sentences. Death by incarceration is “any exorbitant amount of time that a person is given behind bars, assuming that they’ll die behind bars based on the length of that sentence,” Sawari explained. Life without parole is one example of death by incarceration—but it can also include sentences like 50 years behind bars. In 2017, over 200,000 people were serving life sentences or “virtual” life sentences (50 years or more), according to The Sentencing Project. 50,000 of those people were serving life without the possibility of parole.
“There’s no way that you can look at someone when they’re being sentenced and decide when they’re gonna finish their process of rehabilitation,” Sawari argued. “Especially [when it’s] a young person. A 17-year-old or a 16-year-old being sentenced to life in prison is absolutely ridiculous. So prisoners are calling that no person ever be sentenced to death by incarceration.”