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National Prison Strike Calls for End to “Modern-Day Slavery”

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega National Prison Strike Calls for End to “Modern-Day Slavery”Photo via BQIC.
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The debate around criminal justice reform has long been limited to the manner by which potential suspects are arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for their crimes. In mainstream conversations, not much has been said about the treatment of those who are already incarcerated, what kind of wages they earn for the labor they do, what kind of opportunities they have while on the inside, or how they’re able or unable to prepare for life on the outside.

The National Prison Strike, as initiated by the South Carolina-based group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, is aimed at injecting these ideas into common discourse. The strike, intended to span across prisons all over the country from August 21 to September 9, includes 10 demands aimed at improving the quality of life for the more than 2.2 million incarcerated men and women in the U.S.

Jailhouse Lawyers are calling for the nation’s prisoners to leave the laundry dirty, the meals uncooked, the grounds overgrown, and the floors unwashed in protest of what they call “modern-day slavery.” They’re demanding an end to unfair compensation, which in Ohio tops out at 17 cents per hour. These wages are barely enough for inmates to make purchases at their facility’s commissary, let alone send money home to their families or save up for a future outside of prison. And in states that have pay-to-stay fees, as in Ohio, prisoners’ hourly wages aren’t even a drop in the bucket of debt they can accumulate over a years-long incarceration.

Along with low wages, prisoners are striking against obstructed access to rehabilitative programs, the missing vote of those incarcerated or under state control during election seasons, as well as several laws that have incrementally chipped away at prisoners’ rights.

“The prison strike is about them stopping the work they’re mandated to do behind bars and try to interrupt that exploitation. And they’re going to do that by hunger strikes, they’re going on work stoppages and doing whatever they can within their capacity to stop that exploitation,” says Dkeama Alexis, co-founder of Black Queer and Intersectional Columbus (BQIC). The group hosted a rally in solidarity with U.S. prisoners outside the Franklin County Courthouse on Tuesday evening. Along with speakers, including one previously incarcerated individual, the rally heard from those who are currently in prison via letters and recordings.

“It’s incredibly dangerous for them to [protest] under captivity because they’re at the mercy of violent guards and patrol officers that are in there with them,” Alexis continued. “So, it’s really important that we turn up on the outside for them and show that support.”

Lionel Muhammad, the National Minister for Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, says he spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At BQIC’s rally, he emphasized systemic injustice that he says created gangs and targets black and brown people.

“Gangs didn’t start this problem. This problem was started by the founding fathers,” Muhammad says.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of prisoners in South Carolina who declared the strike and are providing legal training to fellow inmates, have released the following demands:

    • 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 U.S. 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.

The strike is said to be in response to a riot that occurred in April this year in a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, which ended in the deaths of seven inmates and injured 17 more. One inmate told the Associated Press that he saw bodies “stacking up on each other and correctional officers didn’t do anything to stop the violence or check on the injured.” The head of the state prison system told the New York Times that they held off until they could assemble enough officers to end the riot safely.

Jailhouse Lawyers’ action started on August 21, the anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion in 1971, and ends on September 9, the anniversary of another national strike that took place in 2016.

“These rebellions prove time and time again that caging and torturing humans is violence and will be resisted by those locked up by the system,” a Jailhouse Lawyers press release says. “Prisoner resistance demonstrates that instead of solving the crisis of capitalism, prisons themselves are the crisis.”

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