The Prison Strike

When analyzing the law, there is a phrase that occasionally arises: “the exception that swallows the rule.” Essentially, it describes when an exception to a law becomes so large in practice or so morally egregious that it effectively nullifies the law.

If you open a typical history textbook to the section covering the Civil War and read the description of the Thirteenth Amendment, it will likely read something like, “The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery.” This is false. The Thirteenth Amendment does generally prohibit slavery, but it includes an important exception: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In a country that imprisons more people than any other and demands their uncompensated labor at the barrel of a gun, the Thirteenth Amendment is a law swallowed by the overwhelming blood and cruelty of its exception.

In response to this ongoing atrocity and the lives it has stolen, on August 21, 2018, incarcerated people at prisons in the United States initiated a nationwide strike. The participants, organizing with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, made ten demands:

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.

  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.

  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.

  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.

  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.

  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.

  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.

  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.

  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.

On August 20th, DSA announced its national endorsement of the strike, using social media and meetings to encourage members to take part in events in support of its organizers and participants. Methods of support for the strike included phone zaps to prisons, donations to a national strike fund, and writing letters of solidarity to prisoners who faced retaliation for their participation in the strike.

In addition to the national organization’s endorsement, individual chapters around the country also endorsed the strike and showed support through a variety of means. Chapters and working groups in at least 28 states endorsed the strike and released statements of solidarity, including: Alabama, California, Connecticut, DC, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. These statements, exemplified by those from the Birmingham, Quiet Corner (CT), Boise, New Orleans, and Portland, almost uniformly centered the strike participants and organizers as the focus of attention by including their stated demands and justifications.

Members from these chapters, as well as many others which did not officially endorse the strike, also showed solidarity by joining and coordinating events in support. Chapters in North Texas, Philadelphia, Broward County, and San Francisco participated in phone zaps to prisons to voice support for prisoners such as Heriberto Garcia, who held a hunger strike at New Folsom Prison in California. Members in Suffolk County similarly provided court support for organizer Stephen Figurasmith.

As members in Albuquerque, Middle Tennessee, and San Mateo County marched, chapters in Palm Beach County, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, and Milwaukee held letter writing events. In Des Moines, Central Iowa DSA presented the strike’s demands and demonstrated at the offices of Iowa Prison Industries, while Kansas City’s Prison Abolition Reading Group discussed the grand jury report on the inspection of Jackson County Detention Center. Connecting the struggles forcing the strike to the need for democratic representation, Central Arkansas DSA worked to help former prisoners restore their right to vote and created instructions on how they could do so on their own.

Sacramento DSA embodied DSA’s embrace of a diversity of organizing tactics. Although the chapter did not officially endorse the strike, it held an information session at a general membership meeting, in addition to publishing an article on its website in which a member detailed the reasons why socialists must support the action and how they could do so. Members also presented the strike’s demands to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, distributed demand flyers at a brake light clinic, organized a phone zap, and held a letter writing night. Finally, the chapter hosted a screening of 13th, a documentary on the prison-industrial complex directed by Ava DuVernay, as part of an education night on the prison-industrial complex.

Although the strike ended officially on September 9th, the conditions which inspired it persist, demanding continued organizing. In the words of incarcerated organizer Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “This movement needs not just public awareness but public support, not just allies, but comrades on the outside.”

All power to the people!