On August 21 — the 47-year anniversary of the death of activist George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party who was shot by prison guards — incarcerated people in at least 17 prisons across the country began a nearly three-week-long strike in protest of prison conditions. The strike will end on September 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York, which left more than 40 people dead. During this three-week period, inmates will engage in a series of actions, including hunger strikes and sit-ins, to demand prison reform and an end to what they call “modern-day slavery.”
The comparison of the prison-industrial complex to slavery is not unfounded. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, incarcerated people are given no wages in exchange for their labor. Many prisoners are also forced to work, and often in jobs that are exceptionally dangerous or strenuous; many of those who are fighting northern California’s raging wildfires rights now are incarcerated. And to even make a telephone call to their families, prisoners — or frequently, their families — must often pay exorbitant prices.
“Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn,” reads a statement from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina who organized the call to action. “Prisons in America are a war zone. 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?”
Below, here’s what you need to know about the demonstrations.
What inspired the direct action?
On April 15, the nation’s deadliest prison riot broke out at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, during which 7 inmates were killed and at least 22 others were injured. The national prison strike was announced a week later; incarcerated people and organizers say the Lee riots were a call to action.
It is because of the state’s lack of respect for incarcerated peoples’ lives, along with overcrowding in prisons due to mass incarceration, that activists and inmates say the April riot took place. Indeed, long before the massacre transpired, the prison had been the subject of numerous lawsuits; in the past two years, ten former and current inmates have sued the Department of Corrections for personal injuries they sustained at the facility.
What are the prisoners doing?
They plan on doing work strikes, peaceful sit-ins, hunger strikes, and boycotts from spending. Because prisons rely on incarcerated individuals’ labor — for which workers typically get paltry wages, if any — this sort of direct collective action could have a significant impact on how prisons function. There are a number of states that require prisoners to work; there are also a handful of states that do no pay these workers for their labor, which is technically legal.
What are prisoners’ demands?
Organizers have released a list of ten demands, including: to immediately improve the conditions in which incarcerated people live and institute policies that “recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women”; to end prison slavery; to ensure that incarcerated individuals are given access to rehabilitation programs; to restore voting rights to incarcerated people; and to end death by incarceration.
According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States.
How big is the actual strike?
It’s impossible to know just how widespread the strike is, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), because prison officials will either conceal or outright deny any activity occurring inside prison walls. When Mother Jones tried to confirm reports of strikes across 17 states, only three state prisons acknowledged any related actions.
“Prison authorities may prove successful in concealing or even deterring participation in some of those states,” IWOC and other organizers told Mother Jones, “but they cannot refute the righteousness of the 10 prisoner demands.”
Karen Smith, a secretary at a Florida chapter of IWOC, told Mother Jones that prison officials are attempting to keep the strike under wraps because they don’t want “other prisoners hearing this is a thing in their massive prison state.”
However, an August 28 press release from the organization says that thousands of people in at least 20 prisons across the country were participating in the strike, and that prisoners at Burnside County Prison in Nova Scotia, Canada, were also striking in solidarity. In addition, news reports and social media posts indicate actions are taking place throughout the country. On the first day of the strike, a video posted to Twitter showed an incarcerated man at the New Folsom prison in Represa, California, declaring a hunger strike. (When The Atlantic asked a press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about strikes in her state, she claimed that no inmates were participating.)
In an inspiring show of solidarity, detained people have also joined the nationwide strike. On the first day of the nationwide strike, more than 200 immigrants who are currently detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, announced on Tuesday that they, too, were joining the action. According to a statement released on Facebook, the detainees are acting in solidarity with “all those people who are being detained wrongfully,” as well as families who’ve been separated from their children under the Trump administration’s disastrous “zero-tolerance” policy.
Which organizations are supporting the strike?
Per the personal website of Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protest, more than 150 groups were standing in solidarity with striking prisoners on August 21. A large number of the groups are socialist organizations — notably, various chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America — as well as those dedicated to prison abolition, police brutality, and systemic racism.
On August 28, one week after the start of the direct action, IWOC announced that more than 300 organizations and groups had officially endorsed the strike.
How can I support the strike?
Aside from spreading word of the movement on social media using the hashtags #August21 and #prisonstrike hashtags, you can organize a phone zap (a call-in campaign where you identify specific targets, such as a prison warden). Organizers also encourage people to call their local, state, and federal representatives to ask them where they stand on the strike’s list of demands, forcing them to face the lived reality of millions of incarcerated Americans.
For those looking to support organizations that advocate for prison abolition or reform, check out groups like Black & Pink, Incite!, Critical Resistance, and Survived & Punished. Organizations can also show solidarity with prisoners by sending in written statements of endorsement to email@example.com.
In an interview with Shadowproof, a JLS member stressed the importance of getting the word out or holding demonstrations to draw media attention, which would be uniquely inspiring to incarcerated people if radio stations covered it. And one week into the strike, IWOC relayed in a statement that they were already impressed with the conversations that the direct action had generated.
“The success of the prison strike will not be determined in a simple easily digestible news bite, but by the recognition by enough people with enough power to force society to view prisoners as human beings, and view the concerns of incarcerated humans as legitimate human rights concerns,” the statement reads. “The strike has clearly already achieved greater success than the 2016 strike, as it has reached publications and milestones that were never reached in 2016. Prisoner demands have permeated the mainstream conversation and they are taking their rightful place at the table in all conversations on how to begin to undo the atrocity that is mass incarceration in America.”
In an interview with The Marshall Project, JLS spokesperson Krystal Rountree echoed the above statement, acknowledging that “no one is deluded” and believes that by the end of the strike, all of prisoners’ demands will be met; however, that’s not the point of the direct action.
“The long term goal is really about bringing awareness to the issues,” Rountree said.