Organisers say prisoners across the country are expected to refuse to work, hold sit-ins and even stage hunger strikes
The first part of the prisons likely to be hit will be the kitchens, where stoves will remain unlit, ready-meals unheated and thousands of breakfasts uncooked.
From there the impact will fan out. The laundry will be left unwashed, prison corridors un-mopped, and the lawns on the external grounds ring-fenced with barbed wire will go uncut.
On Tuesday, America’s vast army of incarcerated men and women – at 2.3mof them they form by far the largest imprisoned population in the world – will brace itself for what has the potential to be the largest prison strike in US history.
Nineteen days of peaceful protest are planned across the nation, organised largely by prisoners themselves.
The strike is being spearheaded by incarcerated members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of prisoners providing mutual help and legal training to other inmates. A few days ago they released an anonymous statement setting out their reasons for calling a protest that carries the risk of substantial penal retaliation.
“Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue,” the statement said. “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. Prisons in America are a warzone. 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?”
Organizers have put together a list of 10 national demands. They include improved prison conditions, an end to life without parole sentences or “death by incarceration” as the authors call them, increased funding for rehabilitation services and an end to the disenfranchisement of some 6 million Americans with felony convictions who are barred from voting.
One of the most passionately held demands is an immediate end to imposed labor in return for paltry wages, a widespread practice in US prisons that the strike organisers call a modern form of slavery. More than 800,000 prisoners are daily put to work, in some states compulsorily, in roles such as cleaning, cooking and lawn mowing.
The remuneration can be as woeful in states such as Louisiana as 4 cents an hour.
The idea that such lowly-paid work in a $2bn industry is equivalent to slavery is leant weight by the 13th amendment of the US constitution. It banned slavery and involuntary servitude, with one vital exception: “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.
Prisoners, in other words, have no constitutional rights and can be blatantly exploited.
In addition to a refusal to work, inmates engaging with the strike plan to go on hunger strikes, hold sit-in protests and stage a boycott of commissaries, collect phone calls and other payment streams where private and state-owned companies make money out of them. The boycott was the brainchild of Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun of the Free Alabama Movement under the rubric Redistribute the Pain.
He called on fellow prisoners to stop channeling either their own or their relatives’ money to what he called the “prison industrialized complex”. He urged participants to spend 25% of what they saved from the boycott on books such as Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration.
Inmates who join the action know that they face potentially serious consequences. Participants face being placed individually into isolation cells, while past prison strikes have been met with lockdowns of entire institutions.
Communications too are certain to be blocked, leading potentially to a blackout of news on the protest.
According to prison reform activists engaged in planning the strike, retaliatory measures have already started. Karen Smith, who runs the Gainesville, Florida chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee that is backing the strike, said that prison authorities have moved most of the local strike organisers into solitary confinement wings where they will be unable to communicate with others.
“Other inmates have been warned that if they continue to contact advocacy groups they will be moved to the most brutal camps.”
The strike comes two years after the last major nationwide prison strike in September 2016 that saw more than 20,000 inmates refuse to show up for work across 12 states. That strike was co-ordinated out of Holman prison in Alabama, a state notorious for its overcrowded and dilapidated penal institutions, by a group of inmates styling themselves the “Free Alabama Movement”.
This year’s strike was triggered by the riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina in April in which seven inmates died in what was the most deadly prison unrest in a quarter of a century. The bloody melee, fueled by gang rivalry over contraband, lasted for seven hours while prison guards did next to nothing to stop it.
Within days of the South Carolina carnage, and the renewed spotlight it put on the gross overcrowding, understaffing and inhumane living conditions in American prisons, the idea of a nationwide strike began to form.
As inspiration for what promises to be a tough 20 days ahead, strike organizers are leaning on history. The nationwide action begins on Tuesday on the 47th anniversary of the death of the prominent Black Panther member, George Jackson, who was shot as he tried to escape in the prison yard of San Quentin in California.
The strike is then scheduled to close on 9 September, the 47th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion in upstate New York. In an echo of today’s protest, the 1971 Attica riot was also framed by inmates as a push for humane conditions and basic political rights.
But after four days of negotiations it ended in a bloodbath when New York’s then governor, Nelson Rockefeller, sent in state police armed with shotguns and tear gas. Twenty-nine inmates and 10 of their hostages were killed.
Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, said that it was symbolically important that Attica was being invoked. “Attica drew a line in the sand – it was a recognition that people have a right to rebel, and will rebel, when they forced into unbelievably horrific conditions.”
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