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 The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.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 The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole.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!

North Texas DSA: Why We Support the #PrisonStrike

“I appreciate you treating me like a human despite my incarceration. Yes, I’ve made some mistakes in my past, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily a bad just means I’m human indeed!”

- Ezzial Williams, organizer currently incarcerated at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida

North Texas DSA’s Racial Justice Working Group proudly joined other chapters in supporting the nationwide prison strike that took place from August 21st to September 9th. Although the strike has ended, we continue to support the strike demands that call for swift improvements to the conditions of prisons; an immediate end to work without wages; a rescindment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the Truth in Sentencing Act, and the Sentencing Reform Act; an end to the over-charging and over-sentencing of black and brown people and racist gang enhancement laws; prioritized state funding and access to rehabilitation programs for all; and voting rights for all confined citizens.

We endorsed the strike because our members are working toward a future of total prison abolition. This means the eradication of all forms of the carceral state, including policing, detention centers, and public and private prisons. As socialists, we recognize prison labor as slavery: as is explicitly allowed by the law under the 13th Amendment. Given that all slavery is categorically unacceptable, regardless of its nominally legal status, we call for an end to the largest detention center in the world. Although we recognize that the above demands of the strike could be viewed as reforms constituting a compromise of our support for total prison abolition, we instead argue that these changes are necessary for two primary reasons. First, the sheer scale of the physical and mental suffering currently inflicted on those incarcerated demands immediate alleviation. Second, these changes represent a necessary step toward positioning the strike’s organizers to move for the full abolition of the carceral state. We remain committed to working toward building alternatives to policing and mass incarceration that are rooted in a fair and equitable society, with the emphasis that liberation demands housing, health care, food, rehabilitation, mental health care, and the protection of our vulnerable communities. We acknowledge that we must collectively work toward a future of true liberation, where justice is restorative and not punitive, and where we unequivocally recognize the humanity of all.

One way we buttressed the work of organizers on the inside was writing letters to those being retaliated against for bravely engaging in coordination of prisoners to fight for their rights. Ezzial, the comrade mentioned above, is currently serving 18 months of close management for his efforts. In Florida, close management entails sitting for 23 hours every day in a 9x7 cell no bigger than the average parking space. And still, his letters radiate gratitude. He wrote that our letters “lifted his spirits to heights undreamt---a very welcome change from where they had been for so long.” Our hope is that we will be able to continue correspondence and supply organizers like Ezzial with both words of comfort and support, as well as literature to keep their spirit strong for the fight ahead. Many of the other letters we received contained zines and recollections of their struggles. This correspondence is useful in building an understanding that our mistakes do not automatically mean we forgo our humanity, and that our humanity is incomplete without liberation. We aim to ensure their voices ring out beyond the unforgiving cells that currently house them.

In addition to letter writing, another prison organizer in Louisiana contacted us to request that his words be made into flyers for distribution. Their continuing work with Decarcerate Louisiana strives to connect organizers both inside and outside the prison system in order to, collectively, work on undermining the prison industrial complex while also ensuring that incarcerated people gain and maintain some control of their lives. These flyers serve that same purpose: retaining and strengthening the bonds between prisoners and their communities.

Furthermore, these exchanges can assist in demystifying the very idea of prison itself. For most, their understanding of what it means to be incarcerated and navigating the system comes from television. It’s easy to reduce prisoners to racist tropes and inherently amoral individuals, rather than face the reality of the predatory and unforgiving nature of the prison industrial complex. As we engaged in this work, we have strengthened our political education on the issue by reading “Are Prisons Obsolete” by the great Angela Davis. Her words regarding the very nature of prisons and what they mean on a grander scale are particularly poignant in highlighting public’s eagerness to build and populate new prisons. She creates a resounding reason for the acceptance and normalization of a place which she deems the ultimate harbor of human division. Davis writes, “The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs-it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” As capitalism kills our creativity, and thus, our ability to imagine solutions for our community that don’t involve isolation or separation, society will continue to populate places like prisons with those who fall victim to systems that require constant feeding to survive.

In order to effectively push for a better world that heals rather than fosters and profits from division, it is vital that we paint a clearer picture of the complicity of this system. As an incarcerated comrade from Decarcerate Louisiana pointed out in one of his emails, “today, enslavers have multiplied to become a complex system of representatives, senators, mayors, governors, sheriffs, political action committees, the police, surveillance state, prosecutors, judges, wardens, and a billion dollar prison enterprise.” It is imperative that our work illustrates this system’s complexity and highlights pressure points where collective action can not only undermine, but obliterate, these positions of power.  This is how we will work together to end mass incarceration and create an alternative rooted in restoration and justice, not confinement, punishment, and the degradation of our very humanity.