US prisoners demand an end to prison slavery

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On 9 September, prisoners across the US marked the 45th anniversary of the historic Attica prison uprising in 1971 by commencing a series of strikes and actions which is continuing as we go to press. Nicki Jameson reports.

This wave of protest is the most widespread expression of discontent and resistance to hit the US prison system since the 1970s; however the mainstream press has been largely silent about it. Alternative news website The Intercept, one of the few news sources to report on the strike, described the prisoners’ demands as follows:

‘...inmates are protesting a wide range of issues: from harsh parole systems and three-strike laws to the lack of educational services, medical neglect, and overcrowding. But the issue that has unified protesters is that of prison labor – a $2 billion a year industry that employs nearly 900,000 prisoners while paying them a few cents an hour in some states, and nothing at all in others. In addition to work for private companies, prisoners also cook, clean, and work on maintenance and construction in the prisons themselves.’

Corporations such as Walmart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom’s and AT&T Wireless are among those taking advantage of the captive workforce, while, according to the Free Alabama Movement, 4,400 prisoners are employed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to fight fires.

Prisoners are calling for the repeal of an exception in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which bans slavery and ‘involuntary servitude’ except ‘as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted’.

In the US there are some two million prisoners, housed in federal and local prisons, and to call a strike across such a huge constituency was always going to be a mammoth task. In the months prior to 9 September, activists from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Free Alabama Movement, Free Ohio Movement and a range of other groups inside and outside prison employed a wide range of tactics to publicise the strike and encourage participation. This resulted in prisoners in 24 states and 40 to 50 prisons pledging to join the strike.

Confirming exactly how many prisoners have participated is not easy but prisons at which strikes and other actions have been reported include: Holman, Alabama; Otisville Correctional Facility and Nassau County Jail, New York; Central California Women’s Prison; Columbia and Jackson, Florida; Kulani, Hawaii; Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna, New Mexico; Lucasville, Ohio, and other prisons in Michigan, and North and South Carolina.

As of 13 September, prisoners in at least 11 states and 20 prisons were continuing the protest according to outside supporters in Alabama, and on 21 September Brian Sonnenstein wrote on the Shadowproof website that ‘Lockdowns, inmate suspensions, and full-unit strikes lasting at least 24 hours [had been] reported at 31 facilities, housing approximately 57,000 incarcerated people.’ On the same day Russia Today reported that at least 24,000 prisoners in 40 prisons had been involved to date.

Retaliation against strikers is also hard to track, but outside advocates have reported strikers being threatened with dogs, rubber bullets and pepper spray, and prison organisers being put in isolation to make it even harder for information to come out. In one instance, at Ohio State Penitentiary, Siddique Hasan, a well-known prison activist and organiser with the Free Ohio Movement, who is on death row for his role in the 1993 Lucasville prison uprising, was accused of plotting to ‘blow up buildings’ on 9 September. Supporters reported that he was put in segregation and denied access to the phone for nearly a month before the strike in a deliberate effort to prevent him from communicating with the outside world about the protests.

Victory to the US prison strikers! End prison slavery!

For more information on the strike go to: https://itsgoingdown.org/defend-the-strike/

To read about the Attica uprising see FRFI 107: www.revolutionarycommunist.org/britain/ police-prisons/2299-attica-40-anniversary

For the background on the Lucasville uprising see FRFI 202: www.revolutionarycommunist.org/britain/police-prisons/1702-free-the-lucasville-five-frfi-202-apr-may-2008

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 253 October/November 2016