criminal justice reform

The Improbable Story of How the National Prisoner Strike Came Together

The national prisoner strike started Tuesday and will run until September 9. Illustration: Amanda Priebe

Prisoners in at least 17 states have begun striking this week, in protest of the extreme labor exploitation they face in work programs, and of their poor living conditions. It will likely turn out to be the largest and most ambitious prison strike in U.S. history, eclipsing even the 2016 protest in which 24,000 prisoners participated. Their rallying cry is that prison labor is merely slavery by another name.

As recently as five years ago, a strike of this scale was hard to imagine. The protesters, by definition, are mostly cut off from the outside world, banned from carrying smartphones or using social media. Their phone calls are monitored; their mail is censored; and unlike civilian workers, they have no legal rights to organize or strike. Not to mention that the stakes are higher than in civilian organizing — a common response by administrators is to put protestors in solitary confinement.

Because of those obstacles, the improbable story of how the movement has grown owes less to technology than it does to tenacity and resourcefulness. It emerged from a partnership between angry inmates in Alabama and a tiny, anarchist-leaning labor union that hasn’t been prominent since Calvin Coolidge’s presidency, and swept the country’s prisons through letters, clandestine prison-yard conversations, and messages shouted through heating vents. But it’s also a testament to how poor the conditions are in many American prisons, and a heightened sensitivity toward social injustice that has been brought on by Donald Trump’s presidency.

Since the 1970s, this time of year, dubbed “Black August” by prison abolitionists, has been the season for inmate protests, particularly hunger strikes. The strike that began this week will be bookended by two anniversaries: It began on August 21, the date on which Black Panther organizer George Jackson was killed by guards at San Quentin State Prison in 1971; and it will run to September 9, the date on which the Attica prison riot started that same year in upstate New York.

The ’70s were the heyday for prison organizing, but for several decades strikes were intermittent at most. That trend started reversing itself in 2013. That summer, some 29,000 California prisoners went on hunger strike, initially to call attention to solitary-confinement practices, and later to address broader conditions such as sanitation and food. Seven months later, inmates in Alabama called a strike specifically to challenge their state’s practice of making them work for free. “That’s the only reason we’re here,” one of the organizers told Salon at the time. “They’re incarcerating people for the free labor.” (Though some inmates did get paid for working for private companies — as much as 75 cents an hour for making furniture and appliances.) The inmates posted YouTube videos and photos, with phones they’d smuggled in, to show the conditions they were railing against.

Enter the world’s most radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Brianna Peril, a veteran organizer for the group, had already been contemplating the notion of partnering with inmates to give them support. The Free Alabama Movement requested their help, which became a catalyst for broader involvement. “I asked the others, ‘Can we just let all the prisoners in the world join for free?’” she recalled in a phone interview. “The members were super excited about it.’”

Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW has always defined itself in opposition to the more conservative American Federation of Labor. The members, known as Wobblies, tend to be socialists and anarchists who look toward the ultimate overthrow of the wage system; and in the meantime, they employ no paid organizers or staffers, depending entirely on volunteer worker-activists. Their membership in the U.S. numbers just a few thousand, compared to the AFL-CIO’s 12.5 million.

The IWW’s role in prison organizing, Peril said, was to amplify Free Alabama’s message. “It’s really a prisoner-led movement, and it was from the start,” she said. “We’re not going to sit on the outside, in our comfortable homes, and tell people they should go on strike and risk retaliation.” She and her fellow activists in Kansas City went through the database on the Missouri Department of Corrections website, collecting names, and then sending inmates unsolicited letters, along with literature from Free Alabama, and asking if they’d like to join the IWW. (Sometimes guards seized the letters, Peril said, but other times they were personally sympathetic, or just didn’t read closely.) Over the next two years, some 900 inmates became members. They also contacted every inmate who participated in a 2013 hunger strike in Missouri. They had heard the prison guards had retaliated. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m sorry you’re being tortured,’” she said. “‘What can we do?’ They were like, ‘Can you call my mom and give her this message?’”

As the 45-year anniversary of the Attica riots approached in 2016, Free Alabama, the IWW, and other advocacy groups started organizing a mass strike. The practice of having inmates work for pennies an hour goes far beyond Alabama. In the 2016 fiscal year, sales of prisoner-made products brought the federal government $500 million in revenue, at a labor cost averaging $0.90 an hour. In the past, prisoners have manufactured McDonald’s uniforms, IBM and Dell circuit boards, and KMart jeans, among other products. (Some companies, including Whole Foods, have stopped selling products sourced with inmate labor in response to public shaming.)

In the run-up to the 2016 strike, smartphones did become a helpful tool. Prison guards in most Deep South states only make $18 or $19 an hour, said Brooke Terpstra, another IWW organizer, in a recent podcast interview, so they’re all too happy to smuggle in contraband for extra cash. “Prisoners are on WhatsApp, or on Facebook, or on Twitter here and there,” he said. “The guards are bringing in the tools by which they organize themselves. It’s kind of an interesting technological backlash.” But Peril said prisoners organizing happens “every way you can think of, and then 100 creative ways we could never imagine” — passing clandestine notes, speaking quietly in the yards. She’s known inmates in solitary confinement to yell organizing messages into air vents, in the vague hope that someone will hear.

However, the biggest factor, she said, was the civilian demonstrations occurring outside the prisons. When those received media coverage, they were broadcast to inmates watching TV or listening to local radio in their cells.

Terpstra believes lengthy sentences have also made the conditions just right. “Due to the length of sentences, the state is creating an educated class,” he said. “Even though they’re not allowed access to libraries with much theory or even overtly political literature, by navigating and surviving the system for years, you’re basically creating a veteran organizer.”

In August of 2016, some 24,000 inmates at as many as 50 prisons participated, mostly in the South and the Midwest. There were reports, most of them unsubstantiated, of guards beating inmates, withholding medical care, and making them stand out in the cold. “It was so demoralizing,” Peril said. “They’re our friends — they’re practically family.”

The organizing flagged last year. But a prison riot in South Carolina early this year reawakened many organizers’ passion. In the course of the fighting, seven prisoners were stabbed to death, and many more were severely injured. Prison administrators blamed it on gang rivalries; but the historian Heather Ann Thompson, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the Attica prison uprising, covered the South Carolina riot in the New York Times, fingering the guards with some of the blame. They had intentionally put rival gangs in the same dormitory, she said, and had let the fighting go on for seven hours without trying to quell it. In the wake of Thompson’s report, there were calls for another strike this summer.

Ben Turk, an IWW member in Milwaukee, said organizing prisoners has been more difficult this year. Because Wisconsin is particularly strict about censoring prison mail, he and fellow activists used to send inmates decoy letters, with messages about striking buried deep down in the text. But the censors are reading mail more thoroughly now.

So the Milwaukee activists bought an ad in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, knowing some inmates have subscriptions; but members the group also reverted to inventive demonstrations — such as going topless at a parade, with messages scrawled on their bodies about the impending strike, and launching a banner over the beach on July 4, suspended by helium balloons. “It worked in terms of getting people’s attention,” Turk said in a phone conversation.

Some 150 organizations, including numerous chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, have endorsed the strike this year, according to the Seattle activist Amin Sawari, who has chronicled the preparations in her newsletter “Solid Black Fist.”

The inmates have a list of ten demands, including better access to rehab programs, restoration of Pell grants for all prisoners (a one-time staple of prison-education programs, which allowed them to earn degrees behind bars; access to the grants was rescinded in Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill), relaxed sentencing laws, immediate improvement of prison conditions, and a guarantee of prevailing wage for all inmate labor. But Peril’s hopes are more modest: media coverage of poor prison conditions, solidarity among inmates, and an end to “human-rights violations,” like failures to provide inmates with clean water.

How the National Prisoner Strike Came Together