As I write this post, a seventeen-day prison strike is going on in this country. The coordinated actions started on August 21, 2018, and will end on September 9, 2018. The strike brings to the forefront prison reform issues that I, and countless other supporters of change, have been bringing to the attention of the general public and public servants about the pernicious grind of mass incarceration. With almost 2.3 million people locked up in this country, it’s humanistic malpractice to ignore the smoldering of our prison populations until they erupt.
Why Have Prison Populations Swelled?
The number of incarcerated men, women, and juveniles has increased over the last several decades for many reasons: the Reagan administration’s war on drugs in 1982, greater federalization of street crime, continuing unemployment, financial obstacles to education, endless racism, lack of smart gun control, shifts in state and federal sentencing guidelines, and the debilitation caused by mental health issues and homelessness—all a measure of a society’s failure to make basic human needs self-apparent by class shunning from top to bottom.
Mental Health and Homelessness
In their book Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?, authors Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll address the emergence of mass incarceration. In chapter 5,“Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill and Growth in the U.S. Prison Population,” the authors highlight myriad reasons for the increase between 1955 and the present. The interplay between mental health issues, homelessness, and prison terms is convincingly argued as one of the many factors. Included in the calculation is the introduction, in 1966, of Medicaid and Medicare programs that committed a “50 percent match for treatment costs in nursing homes [that] created an incentive for states to transfer all eligible residents out of mental hospitals . . . to nursing homes and other facilities.”
The authors continue:
To the extent that outpatient mental health services are inadequate, deinstitutionalization exposes severely and chronically mentally ill individuals to a number of competing risks. The risk that has received the most attention from academics and the press is the risk of homelessness among those with untreated mental illness (Jencks 1994; Torrey 1997). A competing risk that has received less attention is the probability of incarceration.
Prison strikes bring media coverage and social media attention to problems in a system that is top heavy and poorly managed. Strikes underscore problems within our criminal justice system, the preventable punitiveness of incarceration, and the reentry challenges that confront men and women engaging back into society.
A prison strike is a means for inmates to be heard; it is an expression of protest against prison conditions in a concerted voice intended to attract the attention of prison officials and the media—and it is often a catalyst for substantive change that crawls forward enmeshed in politics as throwaway issues. Just be tough on crime to keep your seat in government.
The Historical Context of the 2018 Strike
Prison strikes are not new, and they are not vehicles for immediate change. Strikes can flash into riots. In my November 17, 2016, post entitled Attica!, I pointed out that “the prison conditions that led to the 1971 Attica prison uprising remain rife in today’s prisons. Overcrowding, poor healthcare, lousy food, racism, and poorly trained prison personnel churn within the caldrons of our prisons.”
Other precursors to the September 9, 1971—note the date—Attica prison strike, which lasted four days and led to the deaths of thirty-nine people, included contrived inmate humiliation and shame, lack of education, and poor rehabilitative job training. To support their strike, Attica inmates communicated a list of twenty-seven manifesto demands inspired by the 1970 Folsom prisoners’ manifesto, which had twenty-eight general demands and contained a bill of rights with fifteen demands for prisoners.
In her book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Heather Ann Thompson gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the September 9, 1971, upheaval. Thompson outlines the inmates’ demands for prison reform, which proposed the state do the following:
- “Apply the New York State minimum wage law to . . . stop slave labor.”
- “Institute realistic rehabilitation programs.”
- Educate correctional officers about inmates’ needs so they do not simply punish inmates.
- Provide a healthy diet.
- Provide medical care upon request.
- Require less cell time and offer more recreational facilities.
Do you recognize the recurring issues forty-seven years later? A close look reveals that they’re nearly identical.
The Timing of the Current Prison Strike: August 21–September 9
August 21, 1971, was the day George Jackson, an African-American activist and author incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, was shot and killed by prison guards. Jackson, a Black Panther leader, co-founded the Maoist-Marxist Black Guerrilla Family. His prison sentence was exacerbated by a system that hated him and sought to shut him up.
Jackson and two other black inmates had been falsely accused of murdering a white prison guard. The guard was beaten to death on January 16, 1969, a few days after another white guard had shot and killed three black inmates by firing from a tower into the Attica courtyard.
Less than a year later—on August 21, 1971—and just two days before the opening of his trial, George Jackson was shot to death by a tower guard inside San Quentin prison in a purported escape attempt. As proclaimed in an article about Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, “‘No Black person,’ wrote James Baldwin, ‘will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.’”
As noted, it was on September 9, 1971, that the inmates in Attica started their four-day uprising to protest the inhumane conditions in that prison. That the subject strike begins and ends on dates that are emblematic of the continued struggle for improved prison conditions is a true feat of coordination by those inside and outside the prison walls. Details, facts, and common truths are the engines that drive prisoners to strike.
The Scope of the 2018 Prison Strike
At the time of this writing, the details are sketchy as to the full scope of the strike. In an August 23, 2018, report in the Guardian, Ed Pilkington speaks of sporadic protests in California, Washington State, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and even Nova Scotia in Canada. Pilkington’s article entitled “Major Prison Strike Spreads across US and Canada as Inmates Refuse Food: Prisoners Stand against Forced Labor and Other Indignities amid Reports of Action in California, Washington State and Nova Scotia” patches together pieces of reports from across the country about the extent of the strike and the trigger behind the effort:
The 19-day strike is the first such nationwide action in the US in two years [over modern slavery] and was triggered by April’s rioting in Lee correctional institution in South Carolina in which seven inmates were killed. The start of the strike on Monday was symbolically timed to mark the 47th anniversary of the death of the Black Panther leader George Jackson in San Quentin prison in California.
On August 21, 2018, in an article in South Carolina’s Post and Courier, Andrew Knapp reported that seventeen state prison systems were involved in the strike. “Since April, when seven inmates were killed and 22 others were injured at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville [South Carolina], advocates said security restrictions have further deteriorated morale among prisoners.”
The Issues and Demands in 2018—Slavery Is Paramount
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) works “to end prison slavery together with allies and supporters on the outside.” The nonviolent arsenal for bringing about the changes advocated by IWOC to resist prison slavery includes “work stoppages, hunger strikes, and acts of resistance to business as usual.” The crucial issue highlighted by the organization is the Thirteenth Amendment’s exclusionary clause that constitutionally allows the enslavement of people who have been convicted of a crime. (For more details about this ugly reality, see my post California’s Indentured Firefighters: Inmates Risk Their Lives for $1 an Hour plus $2 a day.)
Like the 1971 Attica demands, the slavery-pay issue is one of many realities that incite, aggravate, and ultimately infuriate inmates, many of whom see prison time as dead time and who genuinely want to improve and educate themselves during their prison sentences. I’ve lived amongst these men, and I served time in that environment of dampened-down confinement. For me, prison time is best described as the warehousing of human beings until their shelf life finally comes due for regurgitation back onto the streets. This cannot continue forever.
The IWOC has published the ten demands of the current strike. Because the demands add a humanistic side to the issues, I list them all for you to carefully consider. What are the arguments against any of these demands?
- Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
- 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.
- The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
- The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
- An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
- No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
- Pell grants [for ex-offenders’ education opportunities] must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
- The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
It’s evident that these demands require serious and detailed consideration to lead to action. This is no mean task; serious work is necessary to bring about the changes underlying the demands. Much of the work has already been done—all that’s needed is for the general population to engage in its own version of a strike to awaken the federal and state governments to finally look at these reasonable demands for revamping the incarceration system in this country.
While I don’t advocate the annihilation of prisons and jails, I support a systematic approach to tackling the recurring problems that led to the 1971 Attica strike and uprising that fuel the same potentially deadly prison strikes and riots today and in the future. We need to avoid the inevitable with intelligent remedies that will benefit not just incarcerated people but everyone in our challenged society.
Additional Resources and Action Opportunities
Here are some ways you can get involved:
- See groups and organizations that are in solidarity with the national strike
- Write letters in solidarity to prisoners being retaliated against because of the national strike
- Donate to the strike fund
- Follow #August21 and #prisonstrike on social media
Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
Image courtesy of 123rf
 In her August 22, 2018 Vox article, Jennie Neufeld quotes Lauren-Brooke Eisen: “[Americans make up] about 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people; we have more jails and prisons than any other country on the planet; more people behind bars than any other on the planet.”
 Deinstitutionalization refers to the set of policies and treatment innovations that drove the number of people in state and county mental hospitals between 1955 and the present to decrease by half a million. (The homelessness problem, I submit, consists of men and women who have been abandoned because of the impact of deinstitutionalization.)
 Jencks, Christopher. 1994. The Homeless. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Torrey, E. Fuller. 1997. Outside of the Shadows: Confronting America’s Mental Illness Crisis. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
 Attica Correctional Facility is a maximum-security prison in the upstate town of Attica, New York.
 Thirty-nine men (prisoners and hostages) died in the retaking of the prison.