By Chris Hedges
This July 1, 2016 photo shows a jail cell inside the Crook County Jail in Prineville, Ore. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)
A nationwide prison work stoppage and hunger strike, begun on Sept. 9, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, have seen over 20,000 prisoners in about 30 prisons do what we on the outside should do—refuse to cooperate. “We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves,” prisoners of the Free Alabama Movement, the Free Ohio Movement and the IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee wrote in a communique.
This round of prison strikes—there will be more—has had little outside support and press coverage. There have been few protests outside prison walls. Prison authorities—unlike during the 1971 Attica uprising when the press was allowed into the yard to interview the rebellious prisoners—have shut out a compliant media. They have identified strike leaders and placed them in isolation. Whole prisons in states such as Texas were put on lockdown on the eve of the strike. It is hard to know how many prisoners are still on strike, just as it is hard to know how many stopped work or started to fast on Sept. 9.
Before the strike I was able to speak to prisoner leaders including Melvin Ray, James Pleasant and Robert Earl Council, all of whom led work stoppages in Alabama prisons in January 2014 as part of the Free Alabama Movement, as well as Siddique Hasan, one of five leaders of the April 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, Ohio. (The Ohio revolt saw prisoners take control of the facility for 11 days after numerous grievances, including complaints about deaths allegedly caused by beatings from guards, went unanswered.) Now, authorities have cut off the access of these and other prisoner leaders to the press and the rest of the outside world. I have not been able to communicate with the four men since the strike began.
These prison strike leaders put no hope in a “national conversation” about race and mass incarceration. They know that corporations, the courts and politicians will never halt the lethal police violence against unarmed men and women of color or dismantle the vast gulags for the poor that dot the country. The mechanisms of repression are by design. They are the logical consequence of deindustrialization. The corporate state uses fear, police violence and huge networks of jails and prisons to keep hundreds of millions of underemployed and unemployed poor people from revolting.
“We have to shut down the prisons,” Council, known as Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, told me by phone from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Ala. He has been in prison 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole. “We will not work for free anymore. All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor. [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid. Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function. Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband. They charge us high phone and commissary prices. Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families. The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines. You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.”
These strike leaders say that, inside and outside the prison walls, rebellion is the only option.
“We are not going to call for protests outside of statehouses,” Ray said. “Legislators are owned by corporations. To go up there with the achy-breaky heart is not going to do any good. These politicians are in it for the money. If you are fighting mass incarceration, the people who are incarcerated are not in the statehouse. They are not in the parks. They are in the prisons. If you are going to fight for the people in prison, join them at the prison. The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike. And we need people to come to the prisons to let guys on the inside know they have outside support to shut the prison down. Once we take our labor back, prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.”
These striking prisoners are far more effective, and far more threatening to the corporate state, than the outside multitudes entranced and manipulated by the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Goon Show. Denied the right to employment, to vote and to public assistance because of felony convictions, denied the right to justice because they are poor, and denied a voice because they have been silenced by state censorship and a bankrupt media, these prisoners were some of the first to understand the totalitarian nature of the corporate state.
“We do not believe in the political process,” said Ray, who spoke from the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala., and who is serving life without parole. “We are not looking to politicians to submit reform bills. We aren’t giving more money to lawyers. We don’t believe in the courts. We will rely only on protests inside and outside of prisons and on targeting the corporations that exploit prison labor and finance the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The 2.3 million human beings, most of them poor people of color, who are locked in cages across the country provide billions in salaries and other revenues for depressed rural towns with large prisons. They provide billions more in profits to phone card companies, money transfer companies, food service companies, merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniform companies, prison equipment vendors and the manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the many other medieval instruments used for the physical restraint of prisoners. They also make billions for corporations—Whole Foods, Verizon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, American Airlines, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpillar and dozens of others—that collectively exploit 1 million prison laborers.
Why pay workers outside the walls the minimum wage when you can pay workers behind walls only a couple of dollars a day? Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons? Why permit prison reform that would impede profits? Why not expand a system that reduces labor costs to slave wages?
“The beauty of a work stoppage is that the prison administrators have to bring in compensated labor,” Hasan told me last year when I visited him on death row in Ohio. “This is what happened in the Georgia prison system in 2010 when the prisoners held a work stoppage for six days. It cost the state a lot of money.”
Prisoners are the ideal workers in corporate America. They earn from 8 cents to about 44 cents an hour. In some states, such as Alabama, they earn nothing. They receive no Social Security, pensions or other benefits. They do not get paid overtime. They are prohibited from organizing or carrying out strikes. They always show up on time. They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations. They cannot complain about poor working conditions or safety hazards. If they protest their meager wages or working conditions they instantly lose their jobs and are placed in isolation cells. They live in an environment where they daily face the possibility of torture, beatings, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, racial profiling, rancid food, inadequate medical care, little or no heating and ventilation, and rape. In short, they are slaves.
The bondage that prisoners endure is, little by little, being imposed on us. The fight inside prison walls is our own. And the harsh repression inside prisons to halt the new strike mirrors the harsh repression that awaits us if we resist.
Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, the minister of defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter), sent this message out of his Texas prison a few days ago:
Monday, September 5, 2016: Labor Day. Here at the William P. Clements Unit, a prison in remote Amarillo, Texas, the prisoners awoke to a late breakfast. A single PBJ sandwich, a small bowl of dry cereal, and no beverage.
This grossly inadequate meal, which is our common fare during institution-wide lockdowns, signaled that a weeks—or months—long lockdown was in effect. Hunger pangs set in almost immediately.
Such lockdowns are routinely imposed twice yearly so guards can conduct a prison-wide search of each prisoner’s living area and property. But this was not a routine lockdown. For one, those lockdowns almost never occur during holidays (however minor). If a holiday is set to fall during the period of a scheduled lockdown, the lockdown is postponed until the day after the holiday. Secondly, those lockdowns happen exactly six months apart, almost to the day. The next one wasn’t due until mid-October, making this lockdown over a month ahead of schedule. Thirdly, for a couple months preceding this lockdown, officials had been rejecting a lot of mail and media on grounds that it contained information on or “advocating” “prison strikes,” “prison disruption,” or “work strikes.” During late August and early September I received a number of these rejections, including for letters from the editor of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, Comrades from the Houston, TX branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, and others.
Officials were also illegally opening and reading privileged legal and media mail outside my presence. They were obviously focused on discovering, scrutinizing, and blocking any information coming into the prison about the work stoppage/strike planned for prisons across the U.S. in protest of prison slave labor and perpetual abuses, which were set to begin on September 9, 2016—the 45th anniversary of the uprising at Attica State Prison, that exposed to the world the inhumanity and savage brutality that Amerika imposes on those it imprisons.
And here we find the clue to this untimely lockdown which officials here have been falsely portraying to us as just another routine lockdown.
The actual aim of this lockdown was/is to pre-empt the prisoners at this Unit from participating in the September 9th protest by confining everyone to their cells in advance of it, and well into the period during which it might last.
Johnson and other prison strike leaders see through the political theater and illusions that the corporate elites employ to mask Americans’ surrender of freedom. They are not fooled by the clever branding—including the presidency of a black man and possibly the presidency of a woman—used to cover over oppression.
“To say that we have a black president does not say anything,” Melvin Ray said. “The politicians are the ones who orchestrated this system. They are either directly involved as businessmen—many are already millionaires or billionaires, or they are controlled by millionaires and billionaires. We are not blindsided by titles. We are looking at what is going on behind the scenes. We see a coordinated effort by the Koch brothers, ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and political action committees that see in prisons a business opportunity. Their goal is to increase [corporate] earnings. And once you look at it like this, it does not matter if we have a black or white president. That is why the policies have not changed. The laws, such as mandatory minimum [sentences], were put in place by big business so they would have access to cheap labor. The anti-terrorism laws were enacted to close the doors on the access to justice so people would be in prison longer. Big business finances campaigns. Big business writes the laws and legislation. And Obama takes money from these people. He is as vested in this system as they are.”
Items once provided to prisoners, such as shoes, extra blankets and toilet paper, now often must be bought from the prison commissary, run by corporations such as Keefe Supply Co. These commissaries are, in effect, company stores where prices are exorbitant and the buyers are hostage. Companies such as GTL force prisoners to pay phone rates five or six times higher than those on the outside. JPay, a money transfer service for prisoners, imposes fees as high as 25 percent. The incarcerated are increasingly being charged for electricity and room and board. This bleeds the prisoners and their families of the little income they possess. Those who run out of money are forced to take out prison loans to buy medications, cover legal and medical fees and purchase commissary items such as soap and deodorant. Debt peonage is as common among prisoners as it is among the wider public. And when prisoners are released they often owe the state thousands of dollars in debt they incurred while locked up. When they can’t pay it back they are tossed back into prison. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years. This keeps the perpetual cycle of neoslavery lubricated.
“For years we were called niggers to indicate we had no value or worth and that anything could be done to us,” Ray told me. “Then the word ‘nigger’ became politically incorrect. So they began calling us criminals. When you say a person is a criminal it means that what happens to them does not matter. It means he or she is a nigger. It means they deserve what they get.”