Why Are US Prisoners On Strike?

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Prison Bars

Throughout the summer, we’ve watched in horror as multiple wildfires across the globe burned their way through villages, towns and surrounding areas. Strong winds quickly spread wildfires in Greece forcing people to flee into the safety of the sea and an estimated 94 people lost their lives. Thanks to two dry summers, wildfires ripped through Sweden and jolted fire departments used to dealing with summer barbecue fires into life. In the British Columbia territory of Canada, this year’s wildfires are now the second worst in the region’s history - narrowly beaten by last year’s fires - and in early August a fire in California doubled in size making it the worst blaze in the state’s history.

As fire departments in various countries struggle to extinguish the flames and limit their reach multiple resources have been provided by various allied nations. Sweden received military assistance from France as well as water bombing equipment from Italy and additional firefighters from Germany, Denmark and Poland. Italy, along with Romania, Spain and Croatia dispatched firefighting planes to Greece while Macedonia offered financial help. The United States requested experienced firefighters from Australia and New Zealand to help tackle the Californian wildfires but they are also using other resources much closer to home in the form of more than 2000 prisoners including 58 youth offenders.

Inmates assisting in firefighting efforts are not a new thing in the state of California. In 1945, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) expanded forced labour camps to include firefighting. In order to qualify for the current inmate firefighting programme inmates must have a “minimum custody” sentence, must not be convicted of crimes such as arson or rape, must have no active warrants and should have no medical issues. Each inmate is individually assessed to ensure they will be team players and will not engage in any violence.

Their roles are to cut bush and trees to reduce the spread of fire as well as maintain hiking trails and clear flood channels and storm drains. In exchange for their services, they are paid $2 a day and $1 an hour if fighting an active fire; they can also have time cut from their sentences. Such a low wage isn’t uncommon for inmates regardless of what job they’re doing - the average wage is 14 cents an hour- and this wage combined with other factors have resulted in a call for prisoners to strike from August 21st until September 9th.

The dates for this year’s prison strike are no coincidence as September 9th marks 47 years since the Attica Prison takeover in Attica, New York. The Attica takeover was a result of inmates becoming increasingly frustrated with starvation, overcrowding and a distinct lack of medical care that they were forced to endure while serving their sentence. Prior to the takeover, a group called the Attica Liberation Faction provided a list of demands to the commissioner of prisons.

The demands were simple: the inmates wanted better working and living conditions along with a change in medical aid but the state of New York chose to ignore the list and punished anyone in possession of it with 60 days in solitary confinement and tightened up prison conditions. Despite the requests being ignored the inmates were not discouraged and eventually found the opportunity to take over the prison and hold guards hostage. Officers were on the scene from day one but negotiations quickly broke down and by day five the order was given: take back Attica Prison from the inmates regardless of how you have to do it. 

In the 30 minutes that followed the order 128 men were shot and 29 prisoners were killed. Those that did survive the extreme brutality - which included being forced to crawl through glass while naked, have lime juice squeezed into their wounds and being forced into drinking officers’ urine - were denied medical attention.

While the Attica takeover ended with multiple casualties the current prison strike is using peaceful methods to make their cause known. Inmates in at least 17 states are refusing to work, going on hunger-strike, holding sit-ins and are staging a boycott of commissaries. Collectively, the inmates are striking for a list of 10 demands put forward by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak but each prison can put forward their own demands as and when they see fit. The 10 demands are:

- State prisons to receive more funding to provide better rehabilitation programmes
- The end to denying imprisoned humans access to rehabilitation programmes
- Immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing and parole denials for people of colour and an end to people of colour being denied parole if the victim/s of the crime are white (a particular problem in southern states)
- Immediate improvements to the overall conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognise the humanity in imprisoned men and women
- Rescinding of the Prison Litigation Reform Act allowing inmates a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights
- An immediate end to prison slavery. Inmates must be paid the minimum wage of their state or territory for their labour
- Pell grants to be reinstated in all US states and territories
- Rescinding of The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act so incarcerated humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting people of colour
- Voting rights to be reinstated for all US citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees and so-called “felons”

Despite the demands being reasonable requests and the strikes largely remaining peaceful the punishments inmates are facing for their pleas remains in line with American’s long history of physical and mental torture of incarcerated individuals. Inmates organising the strikes have been placed in solitary confinement, are denied clean clothes and a shower and have been transferred to a different prison entirely. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and GEO Group officers are now threatening to obtain a court order to force feed inmates who are currently on hunger-strike. In a system designed to provide punishment over rehabilitation and freedom of expression these unfair and immoral disciplinary acts are not unexpected.

While prisons are doing everything they can to keep information about the strikes from travelling to the outside world communication is being maintained by activists and sympathisers. Acts of solidarity including fireworks being set off outside a juvenile detention centre, marchers banging drums, banner drops and graffiti in support of the strikes have been carried out by members of the general public but, despite the public signs of unity, the prison strikes are mostly flying under the radar while inmates actively involved are deliberately hidden out of sight. 

Very few mainstream media outlets have reported on the strikes and the majority of outlets that have covered the strikes have only focused on the beginning. Thankfully, multiple Twitter accounts dedicated to prison rights and others that were created solely for the purpose of promoting and discussing the strikes are continuing to keep the dialogue going.

The effective denial of publicity in the mainstream media makes it very easy for the narrative to be manipulated should anyone choose to do so. In the aftermath of the Attica prison strikes, the inmates were portrayed as the sole instigators of the violence and were frustratingly denied the right to tell the stories of the heinous acts of brutality that were carried out until 2000. It wouldn’t be a shock if this happened again.

While it’s easy to forget about people incarcerated and to wonder why they should be entitled to liveable conditions and a fair wage for their labour, a true test for humanity is how we treat our most vulnerable and our perceived criminals. Are we still willing to throw all of these human beings into squalid conditions in hopes that it will turn them into productive members of society when all of the evidence says otherwise? After decades of what should be simple requests to implement and would result in positive changes in the majority of prisoners, it’s time we stop ignoring what goes on behind prison walls and realise that the current US prison system doesn’t work. How can we ever expect anyone to reform when we won’t even treat them like the human beings they are?

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