On September 9, a series of coordinated work stoppages and hunger strikes will take place at prisons across the country. Organized by a coalition of prisoner rights, labor, and racial justice groups, the strikes will include prisoners from at least 20 states—making this the largest effort to organize incarcerated people in US history.
The actions will represent a powerful, long-awaited blow against the status quo in what has become the most incarcerated nation on earth. A challenge to mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex in general, the strikes will focus specifically on the widespread exploitation of incarcerated workers—what the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) describes as “a call to action against slavery in America.”
The chosen date will mark 45 years since the Attica prison uprising (pictured above), the bloodiest and most notorious US prison conflict. The 1971 rebellion—which involved 1,300 prisoners and lasted five days—and the state’s brutal response claimed the lives of dozens of prisoners and guards. The events left a lasting scar, but have inspired a new generation among today’s much larger incarcerated population.
Tomorrow (August 10), information campaigns, speaking events, and solidarity demonstrations will take place in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, California and elsewhere.
The organizing coalition includes The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), Free Alabama Movement (FAM), Free Virginia Movement, Free Ohio Movement, Free Mississippi Movement, New Underground Railroad Movement (CA), Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement (FICPFM), and IWOC—which has chapters across the country and with which I’ve been involved for several years.
These widespread and coordinated actions haven’t happened overnight; they’re the result of years of struggle by people on both sides of the prison walls. Significantly, it’s incarcerated people who are taking the reins in organizing the strikes this time around—despite intimidation by the state.
If history is an indicator, the state will do all it can to limit media coverage. So organizers inside and outside are organizing communication via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The “revolution” may not be televised, but these strikes will be accessible in real-time via social media, despite prison officials’ efforts to keep them hidden.
Leaning on History and Technology
Organizing incarcerated people on such a large scale is unprecedented for a reason. As recently as 2009, during my two-year stay with the Georgia Department of Corrections, simply talking about unions was unthinkable for fear of retaliation and isolation.
Now, not only are incarcerated workers in Georgia and across the country talking about fighting back against an unjust system—they’re actually doing it.
Many of us involved with organizing this wave of strikes weren’t even born when Attica happened. But we do have the twin resources of plenty of history to learn from and modern communications—especially mobile phones and social media—to lean on as we seek to shape resistance.
Attica happened at a time when, like today, racial tensions and conflict between police and people of color and poor people were high. In 1971, the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were fresh in the public mind, and the government was systematically targeting and eliminating leaders of more militant groups like the Black Panthers.
Through the Reagan and Clinton years—which ramped up the drug war and introduced mandatory minimum sentencing—until today, that number ballooned to over 1.5 million. In total, over 2.2 million people now behind bars—in jail, prison,immigration detention, or youth detention—on any given day.
This makes the United States the world’s number one prison state and massively raises the stakes for organized resistance. Millions of people’s lives and freedom are on the line.
Earlier Uprisings and the Long March to Reform
The few improvements we’ve seen to the US incarceration system have been painfully slow in coming—and they frequently occur only after resistance from inside or public pressure from outside, like the 2009 Rockefeller drug law reforms
The Attica uprising led to sweeping changes in New York’s penal system, but many of the particpants’ grievances remain problems today. The demands of recent prison strikers strongly echo Attica’s Manifesto of Demands and the earlierdemands of inmates at Folsom in California: basic medical care; fair pay for work; an end to abuse and brutality by prison staff; fair decisions by parole boards; sanitary living conditions; and adequate and nutritious meals.
One of the clearest, and least known, examples of prison workers striking to improve conditions came from North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW) in 1975, four years after Attica. Incarcerated women there staged a sit-in strike against conditions at the state’s only prison laundry facility.
Their nonviolent protest was met with force by prison guards, who corralled them into a gymnasium and assaulted them. The women fought back, triggering the state to send in 100 guards from other prisons to quell the uprising. The prison resumed normal operations four days after the strike began, but the prison laundry was closed shortly after the incident. [1. & 2.]
The NCCIW strike, the Attica Uprising, and the Lucasville, Ohio prison rebellion of 1993—the only major prison uprising in the US to be resolved peacefully— provide vital lessons for prisoners and their allies on the outside.
Siddique Abdullah Hassan, who participated in the Lucasville uprising and remains incarcerated, was recently interviewed by IWOC members. He expressed the need for solid support from the outside during prisoner resistance:
“[I]t is a sad commentary on our part, meaning both those people behind enemy lines and on the outside who are activists. When people step up to the plate and fight in a righteous cause, I think that we should not leave those people for dead.”
2010: A Flashpoint in Georgia
The wave of hunger strikes and work stoppages that have built up to the September 9 coalition began in December 2010, when inmates at six Georgia prisons refused to report for meals and work assignments.
Since almost all the work that allows Georgia’s prison system to function comes from unpaid inmate labor—cooking meals, maintaining facilities, picking up trash, repairing storm damage, and doing other work for county government that would otherwise be filled by members of the community (many incarcerated workers work alongside workers from the free world), even building new prisons and handling administrative tasks for prison officials—the strike made an immediate and lasting impact.
The strikers’ demands were simple and familiar. So was the State’s response. The Georgia Department of Corrections reacted by shutting off water and electricity to the strikers’ living quarters. Most of them quickly succumbed to these harsh measures, but a handful dug in and continue to resist.
The state retaliated against 37 inmates who were identified as organizers with extreme isolation and punishment.
Prison guards at Smith State Prison in South Georgia were captured on film brutally beating Kelvin Stevenson and Miguel Jackson with hammers [caution: graphic violence]. In what prisoners say is a long-running practice, the two men were isolated from public view and denied visits from family members and legal counsel until their wounds healed.
Three Georgia corrections officers were convicted in 2014 for an earlier beating, but justice continues to elude Jackson, Stevenson and their families. The Georgia Department of Corrections responded to the beatings by asking Google to censor the YouTube video.
Four of the original Georgia strikers, now under close security, staged another hunger strike in 2015. This time their only demand was that their security level be reconsidered, per state policy.
The Rising Tide
The Southeast, which incarcerates more of its residents than any other US region, has been a focal point of prison organizing.
Inspired by the actions of their Georgia neighbors, incarcerated workers and supporters in Alabama began organizing work stoppages and hunger strikes of their own under the banner Free Alabama Movement (FAM). Since its inception, FAM has organized for a flurry of work stoppages and minor uprisings at St. Clair, Holman and Staton Correctional Facilities in 2014, 2015 and earlier this year.
FAM organizers explain in this YouTube video why they’re organizing incarcerated workers:
“They [Alabama Dept. of Corrections] not gonna make this man go to school if he needs a GED. They’re not gonna make him get a skill or trade. They’re not gonna make him do the things that will help him be successful when [he] gets back to the streets. They gonna make him work for them and provide free labor. And that’s where Free Alabama Movement comes in.”
FAM developed a manifesto called “Let the Crops Rot in the Fields,” which lays out a framework that’s spread to prisons across the country. Instead of relying on support from the outside or passive actions like hunger strikes, incarcerated workers are utilizing the most powerful tool they have: their labor.
Incarcerated workers are paid pennies an hour—or not at all in Georgia and Texas—for often-backbreaking labor that keeps prisons operating and benefits the state and, increasingly, private corporations.
If they refuse or are unable to work, inmates say they’re subject to punishment, including “isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals.”
FAM is also working within the system to enact legislation geared toward improving conditions for incarcerated people in Alabama. They recently presented the Alabama Freedom Bill, which would expand access to education, rehabilitation, and reentry services—services which are already supposed to exist on paper, but rarely do in practice.
Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, a formerly incarcerated person whose organization, The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), was a critical player in the early resistance in Georgia and Alabama, says: “They created the School-to-Prison Pipeline, we want to flip that and organize a Re-entry Pipeline.”
An Alternative to the Silence of Mainstream Unions
At a time of high tension, this coalition finds itself at a critical intersection of racial, structural and economic oppression.
Mainstream unions have been largely silent on the issue of inmate labor. In fact, major unions like American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and the Teamsters represent corrections officers and police across the country—placing them in direct conflict with prison workers and the most marginalized people in our society.
These unions frequently fight to keep prisons open, even when their members are guaranteed work elsewhere. This effectively puts them in the same boat as private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, whose contracts often contain quotas which require a certain percentage of beds remain filled.
IWOC currently counts about 1,000 incarcerated members, a number which continues to grow as September 9 approaches. This makes it the largest area of organizing within Industrial Workers of the World—a labor union controlled directly by workers which operates outside the mainstream union model.
Most, though not all incarcerated people have committed crimes—or at least, what are considered “crimes” under our current system. But they often do so out of necessity, sometimes to support drug problems where treatment or harm reduction services don’t exist and, too often, to support families or just survive in a system which discriminates by race, gender, sexuality and economic status, and robs anyone with a criminal record of opportunities.
Incarcerated workers are still workers, regardless of criminal records. Other than by ending or massively reducing incarceration itself, it is only by building connections between workers behind bars and in the free world that will we begin to reform a system that feeds on human suffering.
A Canary in the Coal Mine
September 9 could be the most powerful call in over a generation to reform—or dismantle—a system that IWOC organizer and Ohio prisoner Sean Swain calls a “third world colony” within the US and a “canary in the coal mine.” Conditions in prison today foreshadow what workers on the outside might face in the future, because the oppression inside is merely an amplified version of the oppression faced by poor people everywhere. In this way and others, this issue impacts allworking people, not just those living in prison.
Most incarcerated people will be released one day. Do we want people who are bitter, humiliated, lacking work skills and education, desperate just to put food on the table and at great risk of reoffending living next door?
Or do we want people who can work, who have ties to their communities, have maintained relationships with loved ones, and who have a vested interest in helping build stronger, more socially and economically just communities when they return home?
If we succeed in making the US pay attention to the events of September 9, it might just help the country decide which of those paths to pursue.