Organising behind bars to fight prison slavery

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pelican bay hunger strike protest
Pelican Bay hunger strike protest

If there is one thing that I learned in my time inside, it is that prisons cannot function without the labour of prisoners. We cook the food, maintain the gardens, clean the wings, work at reception, do the laundry, pack the canteen bags…Without us, prisons could not afford the cost of keeping us imprisoned. Ironic isn’t it? It has inspired me to see, therefore, recent prisoner resistance in the United States. Across the country, prisoners have started to recognise the system’s economic dependence on them. Nicole Vosper of the Incarcerated Workers Organising Committee (IWOC) writes.

In 2013, the largest hunger strike in recorded history took place in California. More than 30,000 participants effectively ended solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison. This huge victory is as a result of prisoner organising. With mass incarceration so linked to for-profit prison industries, prisoners now have more opportunities for leverage than ever, and are moving beyond hunger strikes to withdrawing their labour as well.

Multiple grassroots organisations and movements are fighting on the outside to support these prisoner efforts. One of these is IWOC, which is a part of the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary union founded in 1905 and organised by immigrants, people of colour, women, unskilled workers, prisoners and others whom mainstream labour organisations refused to organise with and often sold out.

IWOC emerged in the United States in 2014, following IWW involvement in the Free Alabama Movement. FAM is a movement of prisoners, their families, and others fighting against the horrendous conditions prisoners face in Alabama. In the last two years, prisoner membership has swelled. There have been increasing numbers of organised work stoppages and huge volumes of literature have been distributed within the US prison system. On 9 September 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, the largest prison strike in history took place across the US. It is estimated that at least 57,000 prisoners participated in 22 states across 42 prisons. The financial losses to the California prison system alone were up to $636,068 every day of the strike. Solidarity actions took place in 60 cities across the US and around the world.

With support from IWOC in the US, a new committee to support prisoner resistance in England, Wales, and Scotland has started. Membership is free for prisoners and we invite anyone interested to contact us.

We know from being in prison that defending yourself on your own normally means a privilege warning, segregation, being ghosted out or worse. Yet we know that complaints don’t work, talking to the Independent Monitoring Board doesn’t work, lobbying those in power rarely succeeds and the legal system is stacked against us from day one. To bring the system to its knees, we need prisoner-led resistance. But prisoners need, more than ever, a strong movement of people outside willing to fight by their side. An injury to one is an injury to all!

IWOC would like to support prisoners, their families, friends and comrades to organise in whatever way they can. We want to act as a point of contact, share information and be a source of support. We want to share news of prisoners organising around the world. We plan to publish a regular newsletter with content produced by prisoners here; please send us letters, articles, and artwork.

But more than anything, we want to have your back! We want to mobilise people on the outside to be at the prison gates screaming in solidarity when you’re abused by officers. We want to block phone lines of prisons when they deny you medical treatment. We want to support prisoners to stop prisons from being profitable. We believe, as witnessed in the US, that prisoners have power. Your struggles are not invisible. They are central to destroying capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia and many other forms of domination.

There has never been a more important time to organise. Government cuts are resulting in more violence, bang-up and neglect in prisons. More and more people are getting sent down and the state plans to build six mega prisons to further profit from putting people in cages. All the while, it is becoming harder and harder to survive on the outside. Benefit sanctions, horrific working conditions and zero-hour contracts are the reality for most. It is a critical time to come together and fight for a different future. By building relationships and working together, we can resist the alienation and separation that prison inflicts on us.

For more information please write to IWOC, c/o IWW, PO Box 5251, Yeovil, BA20 9FS; iwoc.iww.org.uk

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 259 August/September 2017