Rattling the Cages

This fall’s prison strikes are a model of how to both survive and challenge an authoritarian, racist order.

Ben C / Flickr

On September 9, an estimated twenty-four thousand people in twenty-nine prisons across twelve states launched a national strike. The Free Alabama Movement (FAM), the prisoner organization that announced the strike last spring, called for an “action against slavery in America.” Pointing to the Thirteenth Amendment, which allows slavery as “punishment for a crime,” the organizers “vow[ed] to finally end slavery in 2016.”

Even before it began, proponents were labeling it the biggest prison strike in American history. Yet the action’s exact scope remains unclear: communication is inherently limited, and prisons routinely suppress or misreport protest activity. A number of prisons took preemptive measures to prevent protests before September 9.

Supporters claim that anywhere between twenty thousand and seventy thousand people have participated in the strike, but the accuracy of these figures is difficult to determine. After two months, the major strike action seems to have dissipated, but some facilities remain on alert.

Numbers aside, the mass action shows that a bold spirit of resistance has once again jolted the American prison landscape. For more than five years now, prison and immigrant detention center officials have had to contend with sustained disruption.

In December 2010, prisoners in Georgia staged a statewide work stoppage. Seven months later, California prisoners began the first of three hunger strikes protesting long-term solitary confinement. At its height in 2013, thirty thousand incarcerated people throughout the state joined in support of the leadership collective’s five demands. The strike yielded a legal settlement that has removed almost all California prisoners from long-term isolation. It also produced a historic statement calling for multiracial unity that would deprive the state of its most brutal governing strategy: manufactured racial conflict among prisoners. FAM itself went on strike in January 2014, then followed it up with a more chaotic uprising last March.

While speaking to local conditions, each rebellion seemed to inspire other incarcerated people to wage their own struggles. The current strike has served as an umbrella under which prisoners can articulate a host of concerns about their immediate conditions.

Its epicenter is in the South, where prisoners in Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas have called for an end to the unpaid or extremely low-wage labor they are forced to do.

At the Kinross prison in Michigan, prisoners first refused to show up for work. When the guards denied them food, they staged a peaceful march in the yard and vandalized several units of the facility. Their grievances included not only low pay, but substandard food and medical care.

In Florida — which has the country’s third-largest prison system — four hundred people at the Holmes prison destroyed several dorms in opposition to poor living conditions. Prisoners at four other facilities in the state engaged in similar demonstrations over a five-day period.

Hundreds of California prisoners have staged a rolling series of labor and hunger strikes to protest overcrowding, isolation, and the ongoing collective punishment that targets alleged gang members.

Chelsea Manning launched a five-day hunger strike and successfully pressured officials to provide her gender transition surgery.

Those victories have come with a cost. Two prisoners have died over the course of the strike: one person committed suicide while in solitary confinement in Alabama’s Holman prison, and a prisoner at Kinross prison died from medical neglect.

Because prisons make widespread use of collective punishment, information about retaliation is still being collected. But the evidence we have suggests that authorities haven’t given rebellious prisoners much latitude.

Both Holman and Kinross subdued strong strike activity with force. Other activists have faced punitive transfers and isolation as a result of their participation. Institution-wide lockdowns — some of which began preemptively — made medical care and other insufficient programs even more scarce.

Even some facilities with no strike activity punished politically active prisoners: at Attica, former Black Panther Jalil Muntaqim, now in his forty-fifth year of incarceration, was placed on lockdown and received a disciplinary ticket for writing a letter about a possible protest next summer.

The backlash has taken more abstract forms as well. Officials in Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas have denied that a strike even took place, contradicting prisoner testimony. Indeed, part of the struggle involves overcoming the severe barriers to communication and transparency that imprisonment throws up. Dissident prisoners must use whatever media is available to them to organize. In the present strike wave, for instance, prisoners have used contraband cell phones and social media, in combination with print media, to communicate across different facilities.

Fortunately, some reporters on the outside have paid attention. While some have decried a “media blackout,” more mainstream publications covered the strike as it went on. Still, we are a long way from securing access to and protection for incarcerated people as sources and activists — whether for this strike or the next one.

A Rebellious History

Today’s strikers consciously draw on the 1970s prison strike wave. In fact, FAM intentionally chose to begin the current strike on September 9 to honor the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica uprising, the most famous prison rebellion of that era and one that sparked uprisings at prisons around the country.

On that day in 1971, a small fight between prisoners and guards in the upstate New York facility exploded into a dramatic four-day rebellion that saw a black-led, multiracial group of almost 1,300 prisoners articulate a broad social justice vision from within the confines of maximum security. What ultimately seared Attica into popular consciousness, however, was brutal police violence. Troopers killed twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages, and shot more than one hundred others. Then they forced the survivors to strip, crawl through the mud, and face days, months, and years of torture.

Attica’s revolt — and repression — was part and parcel of a national prison movement. Like today’s strike, it took cues from earlier uprisings. Several of the people who emerged as leaders over those four days had joined a rolling series of strikes in the New York City jail system months earlier. Others had led a rebellion at Auburn prison before being punitively transferred to Attica, the state’s most severe prison.

The rebellion’s origins extended far beyond New York. On August 21, 1971, many prisoners in Attica joined a national one-day silent fast to mourn the murder of bestselling author and incarcerated militant George Jackson, whose book of letters Soledad Brother spoke to the restive mood then sweeping American prisons. Jackson was shot during a bloody takeover of the solitary confinement unit in which he and twenty-six others were held. Once guards had put down the revolt, they forced the men to strip naked, tortured them, and held them incommunicado for days on end. The same strategies would be used at Attica and around the country.

Shaped by Black Power and other radical movements, many American prisoners in the late 1960s described prison as a more concentrated form of the racial and economic oppression shaping the United States as a whole.

That revolutionary nationalism and antiracist socialism would find proponents in prison was not, in retrospect, surprising. Many leaders and members of organizations like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party had been incarcerated as juveniles or young adults. Young people involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and other leftist groups faced time in jail, if not prison, for challenging segregation, opposing the Vietnam war, being queer in public, having an abortion, resisting sexual violence, or otherwise pursuing social change. The specter of arrest, imprisonment, and torture accompanied political activism throughout this period.

Like today’s actions, the 1970s prison movement had a global scope and a local character. Defense campaigns for imprisoned activists or women prosecuted for self-defense against male violence rallied leftists to a broader critique of prisons, while local conditions shaped particular battles.

In California, Illinois, and New York, for example, the combination of large radical movements and substantial black populations made prison activism a key part of racial justice protest both inside and outside. In Texas, prison organizing targeted the racist sexual assaults black and Latino men faced by a handful of white prisoners acting as institutional overseers in the state prison’s plantation labor system. And in Maine, the almost totally white prison population faced censorship and political reprisals for organizing.

One significant, if little known, rebellion occurred at the same place FAM is organizing today. In the spring of 1972, nearly 1,200 people at Alabama’s Atmore Prison Farm went on strike for four days. They had planned to wait until October, when they would be harvesting sugarcane. But the routine beatings, racist assaults, and poor conditions — the men were even denied eating utensils — hastened the protest. The prison responded by transferring hundreds of people to other facilities, yet the unrest persisted. Prisoners eventually formed Inmates for Action (IFA), which continued pressing for change over the next decade.

The violent uprisings of the 1970s evolved into a series of battles in the 1980s to expand the legal protections afforded to incarcerated people. But since the passage of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, prisoners have seen their ability to sue severely restricted.

At the same time, mass incarceration and increased prison securitization has hindered prisoners’ capacity to organize militant actions. Prison officials limited organizing opportunities inside while cutting off contact with social movements outside. Much like police repression and union-busting undermined social activism outside of prison, the expansion of solitary confinement and the rise of supermax prisons decimated prison radicalism.

The unprecedented number of people entering prison in the 1980s and 1990s both came from and entered places ravaged by conservative policies.

Yet despite decades of counter-reaction, a new prison movement is taking shape. Sanyika Shakur, Chelsea Manning, Melvin Ray, CeCe McDonald, and others have written about their experiences of state violence, disseminating their insights and strategies to other prisoners and activists. Each new cycle of struggle produces new sites of struggle.

In addition, the recent wave of prison rebellions has reignited productive communication between activists inside and outside prison. The California prison hunger strike began at the same time as Occupy Wall Street, and some of the strikers offered advice to the movement. This political consciousness spreads even further as people move between prison and their home communities.

A Revolt Against Unfreedom

FAM and their supporters in the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee — a project of the Industrial Workers of the World — have described the protests that began on September 9 as a labor strike. The prison is indeed a workplace, but it is not only that — and perhaps not even primarily that.

Prisons function more like sites of worklessness than they do as factories. Deindustrialization and neoliberal restructuring have pushed millions of people out of the formal economy. A large percentage ends up in prison.

Once there, more than half of them perform no productive work whatsoever. Of the 2.3 million-person prison population, an estimated 900,000 people work, mostly for the state. They earn pennies on the dollar, if they are paid at all. Forced labor remains particularly brutal in Southern prisons. But the fact remains that most prisoners do not labor, and many would prefer safe and fairly remunerated work to the structural boredom of prison life.

The organizers have described the actions as protesting “prison slavery.”  The comparison here is apt. For it is captivity, not labor, that defines prisons and slavery. Both institutions confine people physically and monitor or prohibit their movement, communication, and political activity. But slavery was ultimately a labor regime that could not function without its captives. As W.E.B. Du Bois noted, the general strike of slaves won the Civil War for the North.

The same cannot be said of prisons. The state uses mass incarceration to incapacitate people unable to participate in the economy. Although some institutions do force prisoners to work, free labor doesn’t explain why the prison population underwent a four-decade increase. The first prisons were built to deal with unruly workers; they expanded to remove allegedly superfluous workers altogether.

This poses a challenge for prison activists. The contemporary strike may have a material impact, but there is no evidence that withholding labor can topple a system that is premised on repression, not production. What’s more, a massive security apparatus — concrete walls, barbed wire, heavily armed guards — stands between prisoners and freedom. They cannot undertake the mass exodus that ended slavery.

Deploying the framework of labor unrest, the recent prison strikes have expressed participants’ outrage at captivity. They are united by participants’ refusal to abide the prevailing regime. They demand not only fair and equitable labor practices, but also a livable life. Prisoner activism has always highlighted inhumane conditions — not just in prison, but in society itself.

But there is a chasm separating outrage at prison conditions from a political program to end them. The history of prison organizing — up to and including this fall’s strike — highlights the need for a strong infrastructure that can amplify prisoner demands, apply public pressure to protect incarcerated people, raise funds to hire quality attorneys for what can become years-long cases, support the leadership of currently and formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, and articulate the central role imprisonment plays in making American inequality.

US prisons are often harbingers of social change. The severity of racism and austerity that today’s strikers are challenging threatens to become even more generalized under Donald Trump. While the strike has been concentrated in state prisons — where most incarcerated people are held — the federal government sets the tone that the states pursue. Imprisonment is likely to play a big role in Trump’s effort to revive a “law and order” paradigm. He has already surrounded himself with career prosecutors who exacerbated mass incarceration.

But the strike does more than remind us of the existence of mass repression. These dissident prisoners have developed strategies to survive and challenge authoritarian regimes. Against isolation and brutality, prison radicalism combines defensive campaigns for survival, broad-based coalitions of support, and courageous actions to advance alternative visions.

This work takes time, resources, and careful planning. But in the balance between confronting state violence and growing mutual aid lies the potential for expansive left movements capable of achieving meaningful change.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.