Lentis/The 2018 U.S. Prison Strike
Introduction[edit | edit source]
The 2018 U.S. Prison Strike took place from August 21 to September 9, where prisoners across the United States went on strike by coordinating sit-ins, hunger strikes, work stoppages, and commissary boycotts. Prisoners wanted to draw attention to poor prison conditions and exploitative labor practices. The first calls for the strike began in April after a prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution left seven inmates dead and 17 injured. Six of the seven prisoners killed were African-American. The violence was permitted for hours, making it the deadliest prison riot in the United States of the last 25 years. Inmates in at least 17 states were expected to participate in the strike, but protests were only demonstrated in four states. Nonetheless, the strike garnered national media coverage, sharing the issue of the inhumane treatment of prisoners with a larger audience. The start date of the strike was chosen to mark the 47th anniversary of the death of Black Panther member George Jackson. Jackson was shot in a prison yard during an escape attempt in California on August 21, 1971. The strike's end date recognized the deadly Attica prison uprising of September 9, 1971 in New York.
The strike can teach us about ways of making issues visible, especially issues that are traditionally hidden from the public. These include the existence of modern slavery and dehumanization of prisoners in the U.S.
Participants[edit | edit source]
The strike was initiated by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JSL), a collection of imprisoned people who fight for human rights. JSL provides prisoners access to legal education and other resources. They hope to improve human conditions in prisons, provide prisoners access to rehabilitation and voting services, and address racism in the U.S. justice system. JSL released the list of 10 demands and planned the strike. The strike was also supported by the Incarcerated Workers Committee (IWOC), a prison-led union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). IWOC works to end prison slavery, end the criminalization and exploitation of the working class, and amplify the voices of working inmates. Opponents of the strike included prison officials, who subjected prisoners involved in the strike to severe punishments. More broadly, prison strikes and an end to cheap prison labor hurts the material interests of state governments and prison systems, which benefit the most from prison labor.
Demands[edit | edit source]
The following were the demands listed by the IWOC:
- Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
- 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.
- The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
- 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.
- 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.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
- No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
- Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
- 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.
Agenda Communication and Advancement Methods[edit | edit source]
Strategic Visibility[edit | edit source]
Strategic visibility is how groups bring awareness to a cause when opponents try to hide the issue. Though the ultimate goal of the 2018 U.S. Prison Strike was to secure the 10 demands, a crucial step toward achieving this goal was making their cause more widely known.
Building visibility for prison issues was especially challenging because of the limitations placed on inmates' communication. Internet access is sometimes permitted in low-security prisons. Otherwise, written correspondence is the most popular form of communication among inmates. Prisoners can receive in-person visits by friends and family, but they are usually behind a divider and over the phone. A prisoner is allowed up to 300 minutes of cell phone calls a day from a list of approved callers, and these phone calls are usually subject to monitoring and recording.
Despite these limitations, prisoners managed to spread their agenda. After JSL announced the strike via Twitter, the IWOC developed low and high-tech methods to spread the word about the strike. Inmates passed information to outside contacts using contraband cellphones, and IWOC members promoted the strike's agenda on Facebook and Twitter. For what they lacked in high-tech methods like internet access and social media, prisoners found low-tech ways to pass their message. Strategies included publishing information in inconspicuous newsletters and simply spreading the word by mouth. Opponents used techniques to prevent the use of these tools such as subjecting prisoners involved in the strike to solitary confinement, removing communication privileges.
The effective organization of these groups managed to garner support in prisons, jails, and detention facilities in at least 17 states. The prisoners were able to bring widespread attention to their issue by positioning themselves publicly and raising awareness within their confined walls.
Islands of invisibility[edit | edit source]
Striking prisoners succeeded in gathering national attention. Their strategies can help inform the ways others make seemingly invisible issues visible.
It has become easier than ever for people to bring visibility to important issues. In most public places, there are cell phones that quickly record previously hidden events. The filming of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, for example, helped spark mass protests and marches in summer 2020. This media brought more visibility to the issue of police brutality than any other previous event and sparked one of the largest protests in U.S. history. Polls showed that upwards of 26 million people protested during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
But there remain various locations and causes that have not yet reached widespread visibility. Crimes such as rape and sexual assault committed during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine have often remained unknown to the public and unpunished by authorities. Dietary supplement company USPlabs sold supplements with dangerous doses of synthetic stimulant methylhexanamine (DMAA); the company was only scrutinized after DMAA was found in the bodies of two deceased U.S. military soldiers. In both cases, the broad availability of cell phones in most settings did not apply, and issues could not be documented and shared with a larger audience.
Similarly, the rights and issues of prisoners are not often considered by most people. The issues of the incarcerated are physically hidden from the view of the general population, and cell phones are not nearly as accessible to prisoners. Thus, prison-related issues were not among the top 18 issues for voters during the 2022 congressional midterm elections.
The U.S. prison strike teaches us tactics for illuminating islands of invisibility. For instance, widespread action helps gain momentum for movements. If a single prisoner, or even a single prison, decided to strike for weeks, there would likely have not been widespread coverage by large media organizations. However, due to the strike's status as a nationwide event, it became a notable story. Once a movement gains enough involvement, it cannot be ignored by those in power.
The strike also wielded social media and an online presence to gather support. Strike organizers Jailhouse Lawyers Speak released their original press release outlining strike demands, a plan of action, and ways to support the strike. This tweet received nearly 2,800 likes and over 2,700 retweets JLS maintains a website where they post about the current issues they are fighting for, including this strike's stated goals. IWOC also keeps an article about the prison strikes, listing demands, endorsers, and ways to support strikers. The internet and social media are simple ways to reach a broad audience; anyone with an internet connection can view public posts and articles.
Finally, activists used strike coverage by established media outlets to guarantee attention from the public. News outlets such as The New York Times, Vox, Newsweek, and USA Today published articles about the strike in 2018. These organizations regularly reach a broad audience hoping to stay up-to-date on the current largest stories. With these outlets covering the strike, this helped the event gain legitimacy and delivered visibility about the strikers' issues to readers nationwide.
Prison Labor as Modern Slavery[edit | edit source]
Penal labor is a widespread practice across many U.S. prisons. Prisoners are put to work daily in return for paltry wages. This resulted in item two on the list of demands from the IWOC. The forced labor and poor pay is often referred to as "modern slavery" by inmates participating in the protests and strike organizers. Several states do not pay inmates at all. This free prison labor is exploitative when inmates are coerced, forced, or threatened with punishment if they refuse to work. This leads to an inherent power imbalance as prisoners cannot directly challenge abuses from behind bars. This exploitative practice is legal because of the exception in the U.S. Constitution's 13th amendment that allows involuntary servitude "as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Thus, prisoners have no constitutional rights and are unprotected from forced labor. The average pay in state prisons is $0.20 an hour, however Louisiana's hourly pay stoops as low as $0.04. These jobs may be difficult and dangerous, and inmates with no basic labor protections receive little or no training.
By studying the conditions to which prisoners are subjected, a person can see that slavery is prevalent around the world. It can take many forms, such as human trafficking. Anti-Slavery International defines modern slavery as an individual being exploited by others, for personal or commercial gain. They essentially lose their freedom after being tricked, coerced, or forced. The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies more than 60% of the world's cobalt, which is used in lithium-ion batteries and found in cell phones, electric vehicles, and other electronics. This is obtained at the hands of more than 255,000 miners, 35,000 of those being children as young as six, working in slave labor in the dangerous Congo's cobalt mines. Similar to the the prison strike, this important issue gained momentum and media coverage after International Rights Advocates filed a lawsuit against Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla on behalf of 14 Congolese families. These tech giants were accused of aiding the mining companies that enforce dangerous working conditions and resulted in their children being killed. Therefore, more investigations were being launched and media outlets even traveled to Congo themselves to see the child labor firsthand. This shed a light to the horrid realities that the Congolese faced and made more people become aware of the blood and sweat that created their smartphones.
Dignity[edit | edit source]
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Simply being human means you deserve respect, value and to be treated ethically. However, prisoners rarely have this case from the moment they put on their uniform. After the uniform change they become a number; losing their humanity and identity immediately. A famous example of this can be seen with the Stanford prison experiment. The deindividualization seen might be on the extreme side, but it highlights how those in power take control against people they deem insignificant. To apply this to current conditions an example would be the labor conditions prisoners have to face. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union shows that:
- 65% of prisoners report working behind bars
- 76% of prisoners report facing punishment such as denial of sentence reductions, loss of family visitation, solitary confinement, etc. if they refuse to work
- Prisoners have no control over work assignments, get paid mere pennies at most institutions instead of minimum wage, do not receive work training, are denied workplace safety, and more.
They lose their dignity and rights by being treated unethically as cheap labor. IWOC realizes this and as part of their demands asks prisons to improve these conditions and realize prisoners are human beings, the same human beings who are born equal in dignity and rights.
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
During the 2018 U.S. Prison Strike, organizers grew a movement through the use of low- and high-tech methods. These methods can generalize to other issues traditionally hidden from the public.
The strike highlighted the issues of modern slavery in the U.S., and the fact that slavery is a fact of life throughout the modern world. The strike brought attention to the idea that prisoners deserve human dignity, and that the incarcerated should maintain many of the basic labor rights guaranteed to people outside of prisons.
Future research into the strikes could discuss the historical background behind labor and the prison-labor movement. Such research could also discuss the history of systemic racism behind the current state of U.S. prisons.
References[edit | edit source]
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