Massive prisoners’ strike in US continues amid bids to suppress it

“This first week of the strike has just come to an end and we have seen a substantial wave of success. The mainstream media attention on the strike has been monumentally greater than we have ever seen in the past.”

September 01, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
Florida_prison_strike_january_15- Demonstration in support of a Florida prison strike, January 2018. via IWOC/Twitter.

The prisoners’ strike launched in the US on August 21 might have expanded beyond the 17 States where the action was originally planned. This was revealed by Amani Sawari, a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) – an anonymous prisoners’ collective providing legal support to the incarcerated – which had given the call for the strike. The strike, possibly the largest ever in US history, is expected to continue till September 9.

It was launched in protest against the use of prisoners as slave labor – which is a multi-billion dollar industry serving private profits, as well as US military production. Other issues include the extortionist prices charged for prison services such as phone calls, poor living and working conditions, and racial discrimination in the implementation of laws.

“This first week of the strike has just come to an end and we have seen a substantial wave of success. The mainstream media attention on the strike has been monumentally greater than we have ever seen in the past,” Amani Sawari said. The strike has even spread to Canada.

This is despite various measures taken by the prison officials to prevent the strike – such as isolating the strike leaders to prevent them from communicating with other prisoners, restricting access to phones to a large number of prisoners, deporting strikers to different facilities and threats of other kinds of punishment.

200 detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, joined the strike on the very first day. While many of them struck work, others launched a hunger strike. Seven of them have continued the hunger strike into the second week of the prison action.

The ongoing strike in Lee Correctional Institution at South Carolina has a special significance. It was here that in April this year, prison officials put rival gangs in the same dorm. A seven-hour long riot ensued, leaving seven dead and 22 hospitalized, after they were left bleeding on the floor for hours.

It was after this incident that the JLS decided to advance the prison strike, which was originally scheduled for next year. Apart from this facility, in South Carolina alone, strikes were reported at Broad River Correctional Institution, McCormick Correctional Institution, Turbeville Correctional Institute, Kershaw Correctional Institution and Lieber Correctional Institution.

Only a few prisoners in these facilities were reportedly working on the tasks assigned, while a majority of them struck work and boycotted prison services such as phone calls.

In North Carolina, a solidarity demonstration was reported at Hyde Correctional Institution, but reports of strikes in other facilities are unconfirmed by JLS as yet. A hunger strike started by one individual at New Folsom Prison in California is reported to have evolved into a group action. Two prisoners who had started a hunger strike at the Toledo Correctional Institution on the first day of the strike are reported to have been isolated, with all their means of communication to the outside world cut off.

Cutting into the profits of the private GEO Group, which has been exploiting the labor of prisoners at the Lea Correctional Facility in New Mexico, the prisoners struck work, protesting the poor living conditions in the prison. Strike action is also under way in five prisons in Florida, including in Charlotte Correctional Institution where 40 have struck work and another 100 have boycotted various services in the prison. Other facilities in Florida include Dade Correctional where 30-40 are striking, Franklin Correctional which has 30-60 prisoners on strike, and Holmes Correctional, which has another 70 striking prisoners, according to JLS.

In Canada, at the Burnside county jail in Halifax, prisoners joined the strike in solidarity with their counterparts in the US, and listed a set of demands. “They went through a lockdown and extensive negotiations with authorities. Those who refused to cooperate with humiliating body scans were punished by being locked in a dry cell (no water or working toilets) for three days,” Sawari said.

The date chosen to launch the strike marked the 47th death anniversary of George Jackson, a co-founder of a Black liberation group called the Black Guerrilla Family, who was shot dead while escaping from prison in California on August 21, 1971. Two weeks later, on September 9, was the Attica prison uprising in New York, which came about when the prisoners’ demands for better living and working conditions were dismissed. The uprising ended in a massacre and the torture of the prisoners who had occupied the facility in protest. The current strike is expected to end on that date.