Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Why Prisoners are Striking Today

Prisoners are striking to end death by incarceration, prison slavery and poor living conditions.

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

Why Prisoners are Striking Today

Prisoners are striking to end death by incarceration, prison slavery and poor living conditions.


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.”

 

A 1971 poster for an Attica memorial rally
Library of Congress

A week before the strike was announced, Lee County Correctional Facility in South Carolina made national headlines when a prison riot left seven people dead—Raymond Scott, Eddie Gaskins, Cornelius McClary, Corey Scott, Damonte Rivera, Joshua Jenkins, and Michael Milledge—all of them prisoners. The Department of Corrections blamed the riot on contraband; saying that opposing gang members were fighting over territory, money, and prohibited cell phones. The solution, the DOC asserted, was to block all cell phone signals in the prison system. But prisoners painted a more complicated picture, saying that the overcrowding has made prison conditions unbearable and guards waiting hours to intervene resulted in the high body count. While the DOC is trying to blame cell phones for the violence, it’s those same phones that allow prisoners to organize, speak to the outside world and the media, and keep in touch with family amid exorbitant prison phone fees.

South Carolina prisoners and members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, decided to announce the national prison strike in response to this deadly riot. “Prisons can’t function without prisoners doing the work that needs to be done. Prisoners [are] the ones that work in the kitchen, that do the cleaning. They manage so many different aspects of the prison,” Sawari told The Appeal.

Since the riot on April 15, Sawari reported that units at Lee County Correctional Institution have been on lockdown. During lockdown, prisoners are allowed out of their cell for only one hour a day, a practice that has labeled solitary confinement, and often must eat in their cells.

The strike set to begin today is just the latest protest in a trail of strikes that have been organized inside prisons over the last five years. In 2013, 30,000 prisoners went on hunger strike in the California prison system to protest indefinite, long-term solitary confinement. Two years later, the state agreed to limit its use of indefinite solitary—with mixed results. In 2016, prisoners in Alabama coordinated a national labor strike on Sept. 9, after conducting multiple work strikes within their state prison systems. The strike was to protest prison labor and the low wages paid to prisoners; work stoppages occurred in Alabama, Florida and Michigan. Prisoners in Texas, Alabama, and Florida were thrown into solitary confinement for mentioning that national strike.

“Let this nationwide strike be a wake up; Prisoners will destroy the crops,” read a statement about today’s strike that JLS released on Aug. 10. “We will not comply. We will not allow you to exploit our families’ hard earned dollars anymore. Striking the match let it go up in a blaze. We are humans!”

In the statement, JLS said that influential prisoners have already faced repression for aligning with the strike and that other prisoners say they are being threatened by guards not to participate in the strike. In Ohio, Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan was sent to solitary confinement on July 27 because of correspondence about the strike. According to Ohio’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Hasan’s conduct report listed five violations including rioting or causing others to riot and “engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration or work stoppage.”

But JLS says the strike will go on. “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue. Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn,” the statement said. “Prisons in America are a war zone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us, it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”


This article was produced in partnership with The Nation.

Angola Prisoner Says He Was Punished For Organizing Against 'Slavery'

Ronald Brooks was helping plan a prison strike when he was abruptly transferred to a new prison hours away.

Ronald Brooks posted a Facebook Live video speaking out against "slavery in the jails and prisons."
Photo illustration by Anagraph/Decarcerate Louisiana Facebook

Angola Prisoner Says He Was Punished For Organizing Against 'Slavery'

Ronald Brooks was helping plan a prison strike when he was abruptly transferred to a new prison hours away.


In May, a group of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, laid down and refused to work. After the work stoppage, they continued organizing in anticipation of a nationwide prison strike planned for Aug. 21. But one of the movement’s leaders was abruptly transferred to a new facility after two decades in Angola in what his family claims was a retaliatory measure.

On June 20, Ronald Brooks recorded a Facebook Live video with a contraband cell phone, his face obscured by fabric. The post explained the purpose and goals of the group he had been helping to build, Decarcerate Louisiana. The group was also organizing the inmates to take part in the nationwide prison protests, planned to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the death of George Jackson, a Black Panther, while he was incarcerated in San Quentin. “Decarcerate Louisiana is a human rights movement advocating for human rights and human dignity of people inside and outside of the prison,” he said in the video. “We are anti-slavery and are organizing to transform our ghettos into communities and our jails and prisons into places of human redemption.”

He argued that the loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery for all but those convicted of a crime “must go.” Prisoners across the country are sometimes paid nothing for their work, and in Louisiana the Prison Policy Initiative reports that they are paid 4 cents to $1 an hour for jobs both supporting the prison facility and work that gets sold to outside agencies and businesses, much of it heavy field labor.

“Please join us in our organizing to change the laws to abolish slavery in the jails and prisons and to tear down ghettos that serve as a pipeline to prison,” Brooks said, leaving information for how to donate and support the organization’s work.

A few days later, his family said, he was transferred out of Angola to the David Wade Correctional Center, a notorious facility in North Louisiana that has faced more than 200 federal lawsuits from inmates since it opened in 1980. Brooks had been held at Angola since he was incarcerated at age 19; he turns 40 this year.

Brooks’s mother and sister say that Jerry Goodwin, a warden at David Wade, told them Brooks was transferred as punishment for having the cell phone and because he had been organizing his fellow prisoners to take part in the nationwide protest. Goodwin did not return multiple requests for comment.

The Department of Corrections “transferred him out to kind of break up anything that’s going on, any communication or things like that to try to stop them from moving forward with their rights,” his mother, Margrette Peppers Ray, said.

The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections confirmed to The Appeal that Brooks had been moved, but disputed that the transfer was in retaliation for his organizing work or for having a cell phone. “Any offender sentenced to the Department of Public Safety and Corrections may be transferred at any time to any appropriate facility,” communications director Ken Pastorick said in an email. “Transfers are not punitive in nature and are not part of the disciplinary process.”

Ray said her son had been caught with a cell phone in the past, which typically resulted in its confiscation and the loss of some privileges. “They don’t just take you out,” she said. “To be moved totally from a facility [has] to do with the fact that they knew that Ronald was being a human rights advocate. … What they wanted to do was to move him away … because he was an organizer.”

It also wouldn’t be the first time that the Department of Corrections was accused of transferring a prisoner in retaliation. William Kissinger was transferred from Angola to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center for 20 months before being returned to Angola in September. He had previously been at Angola for 27 years. The abrupt transfer came after Kissinger started corresponding with a reporter at The Advocate for a series of articles on Angola. The DOC ended up settling a lawsuit by agreeing to return him to Angola and reinstate him in his former job at his previous pay rate.

The impact of being moved to a new and unfamiliar facility has taken a toll on Brooks and his family. “It’s a huge change, it’s a huge shock,” Brooks’s sister, Key, said. “To just uproot him from a place that he’s been for over 20 years.”

His family members haven’t been told whether and when he might return to Angola, and the DOC didn’t respond to repeated inquiries.

But the transfer hasn’t discouraged Brooks from organizing. He sent his mother a declaration that he and 10 other prisoners signed, and she shared it with The Appeal. In it, they accuse the Department of Corrections of subjecting them to “inhumane conditions” at David Wade, including temperatures of 100 or more degrees without air conditioning, enough fans, or ice. To cool off, the declaration says they have to lie on the concrete floor or put their feet in toilet water. It also alleges that they are made to wear “thick, hot jumpsuits” all day in that weather, all of which has led to heat exhaustion.

The DOC didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the allegations.

Since Brooks entered Angola, he has been concerned about the conditions he has witnessed, Ray said. “He’s been an organizer going on something like years and years,” she said, and noted that social media and access to cell phones in recent years allowed him to do it on a larger scale.

“The thing about Ronald …  even though he’s incarcerated, he’s always concerned about what he can do to help the conditions,” Ray said. “He’s really trying to help and bring attention and shed light on what’s going on.”

More in Explainers

Why Is New York Still Paying Eric Garner's Killer Six Figures?

Daniel Pantaleo remains with the NYPD four years after Garner's death.

Demonstration after grand juries failed to indict the police officers involved in the death of Michael Brown and of Eric Garner.
Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images.

Why Is New York Still Paying Eric Garner's Killer Six Figures?

Daniel Pantaleo remains with the NYPD four years after Garner's death.


July marked the fourth anniversary of Eric Garner’s death. The city of New York is still paying NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo—the man who put Eric Garner in a chokehold—six figures. The NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits chokeholds and states “excessive force will not be tolerated. [Officers] who use excessive force will be subject to Department discipline, up to and including dismissal.” Pantaleo’s employment isn’t completely surprising: In March, BuzzFeed published an investigation that showed over 300 NYPD officers who committed fireable offenses, including excessive force, were not fired.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio claims that he has been waiting for the Department of Justice (DOJ), at their request, to finish their investigation into whether the DOJ will file criminal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. Ultimately, it’s the NYPD commissioner’s decision to discipline or fire officers—and the commissioner works for the mayor. On July 16, 2018, the NYPD released a letter sent from its legal department to the DOJ, saying that the police department would proceed with disciplinary hearings if they did not hear from the government by the end of August. But in a statement sent to news outlets, the DOJ said it had given the city the green light to move forward on disciplinary charges back in the spring.

In a recent press conference with the mayor, police Commissioner James O’Neill said Lawrence Byrne, who was a deputy commissioner until the end of last month, “was not informed of that. This is something that we’ve been following very closely obviously for years. He’s had many discussions with DOJ and never at any point prior to a couple of weeks [ago] did they say it was OK to move forward.” On July 20, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s police oversight agency that can investigate NYPD misconduct claims, filed disciplinary charges against Pantaleo and will prosecute the case in a departmental trial.

For Eric Garner’s family, the letter (signed by Byrne) was nothing more than a political spectacle. “[The NYPD] letter and the Justice Department response shows that the excuse that de Blasio and the NYPD have been using for not holding officers accountable is just that: a political excuse,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said in a statement released the next day. “In fact, DOJ’s response makes very clear that there is nothing stopping the NYPD from acting immediately to discipline officers and there’s no reason to wait until September, like NYPD’s letter laid out.” On July 25, Carr confronted de Blasio at a town hall in Staten Island and accused the de Blasio administration of blocking accountability and playing political games; she also asked him to discipline all the NYPD officers who were at the scene. Mayor de Blasio responded: “I respect the NYPD’s internal disciplinary process. There is due process; it is immediately beginning, we made that very clear.” He added that only two officers will face discipline: Pantaleo and Sgt. Kizzy Adonis.

Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at University of Texas who studies civil rights litigation, said the DOJ might have asked the  NYPD to delay the disciplinary hearings for legal reasons. Specifically, the DOJ most likely doesn’t want any previous witness statements to contradict their own (since that can result in witnesses being impeached). But Laurin noted: “The DOJ can’t compel the NYPD to not do an internal investigation,” and added that, “the time that the NYPD has now waited to conduct its own investigation obviously, itself, can complicate that investigation,” because the police may no longer be able to track down witnesses.

For police brutality activists and Eric Garner’s family members, four years is way too long for de Blasio to wait when he has the power to fire Daniel Pantaleo. And Pantaleo’s future disciplinary hearing does not absolve de Blasio of failing to hold all the officers at the scene accountable.

“Here’s the reality: in the past four years, Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD could have acted at any time to deliver real accountability for Eric Garner’s killing by firing the officers who murdered him, failed to provide aid or intervene, tried to cover it up, and engaged in related misconduct,” Loyda Colon, co-director of Justice Committee and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, told The Appeal in an email. “But Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD have played games and used delay tactics every step of the way.” Colon called on de Blasio to stop the “blatant cover-up,” make Pantaleo and Adonis face disciplinary charges and then fire them immediately, and release the names of all the officers involved in Garner’s death.

“Mayor de Blasio has not lived up to his campaign promises of reforming the NYPD and making it more transparent and accountable to impacted communities,” Colon said. “Make no mistake: If he doesn’t make this right fast, his mayoral legacy will be tainted by his failure to hold police accountable, and the fact that a major NYPD cover-up of police misconduct in the killing of Garner happened on his watch.”

More in Podcasts