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National Prison Strike Begins: Prisoners in 17 States Demand End to “Slave Labor” Behind Bars

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Prisoners across the country are set to launch a nationwide strike today to demand improved living conditions, greater access to resources and the “end of modern day slavery.” Prisoners in at least 17 states are expected to participate in the coordinated sit-ins, hunger strikes, work stoppages and commissary boycotts from today until September 9—the 47th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. For more, we speak with Amani Sawari, a prison strike organizer working on behalf of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a network of prisoners who are helping organize the nationwide strike. We also speak with Cole Dorsey, a formerly incarcerated member of the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee who is helping coordinate with prisoners on the prison strike.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Prisoners across the United States are set to go on strike today in a mass mobilization demanding improved living conditions, greater access to resources and the end of what they call “modern day slavery.” Prisoners in at least 17 states are expected to participate in the strike, coordinating sit-ins, hunger strikes, work stoppages, commissary boycotts, from today until September 9th—the 47th anniversary of the deadly Attica prison uprising here in New York.

Prisoners first called for the strike in April, after a bloody altercation broke out at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, leaving seven prisoners dead and 17 others seriously injured. It was the deadliest prison riot in the United States in a quarter of a century. Six of the seven prisoners killed were African-American. The violence was allowed to continue for hours. One witness described bodies of dead prisoners, quote, “literally stacked on top of each other.” No guards were hurt.

The riot became the rallying cry for a movement. In the weeks after that, prison advocacy network Jailhouse Lawyers Speak issued a list of 10 demands, among them greater sentencing reform, more access to rehabilitation programs, the right to vote and the end of “prison slave labor,” what they called “prison slave labor.”

This is a video made by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee with the nonprofit Planting Justice, explaining why prisoners are striking.

CHRIS LOCKETT: Some people will look at me, possibly, as a ex-felon or a parolee. I consider myself to be a survivor of a system that was made to target me and have me doing life in prison.

ANTHONY FORREST: Because I know how to strip floors, wax them, take the gum up off floors, and so I started doing that. And that was 16 cent an hour.

DARRYL AIKENS: I started out as a line server, serving food for breakfast and dinner. Then I became a dishwasher and just all the maintenance of the kitchen. And it didn’t pay much. It paid 13 cent an hour. Basically, I worked and made $20 a month, and they took 55 percent of that out for restitution.

COLE DORSEY: It’s kind of like a modern-day plantation situation, specifically targeting poor people and, most especially, the most marginalized community, black and brown and LGBT community.

AMY GOODMAN: The weeks-long strike begins today, on the 47th anniversary of the killing of Black Panther George Jackson, who was shot and killed by guards during an escape attempt from San Quentin prison. The strike is expected to be the largest prisoner action since the 2016 prison strike, which saw at least 20,000 prisoners participating in collective action across 11 states, the largest prison work strike in U.S. history.

Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests. In Oakland, California, Cole Dorsey is with us, former prisoner and activist who helped organize the strike, one of the voices we just heard in the video explaining it. In Detroit, we’ll speak with Heather Ann Thompson, the American historian, author and activist. She just won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, now being adapted for a film. She’s professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And in Seattle, Washington, we’ll speak with Amani Sawari, a prison strike organizer working on behalf of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a network of prisoners who are helping organize the nationwide strike.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Cole Dorsey, let’s begin with you. You’re a part of the video that we just saw. Lay out what this what’s expected to be a several-week strike is about.

COLE DORSEY: Yeah, so, the prisoners—this has been completely prisoner-led. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak can speak more to that. But due to the brutality in Lee correctional facility earlier this year, it was decided that action had to be taken now. And that led to this list of demands, 10 demands, that are really just a human rights declaration of basic demands that we would ask of any human across the world. But especially now that we’re going to start using prisons as warehouses, these issues are more and more relevant, as overcrowding prison conditions, lack of resources and for prisoners to gain those resources, and the continued institution of racism that it enforces, from chattel slavery.

So, while those things continue, these conditions will only exacerbate into what they were in Lee correctional facility in South Carolina, where nine prisoners were murdered. And yes, it was a, quote-unquote, “gang situation,” but it was initiated by the guard officials. In my involvement in prison, they fed on that division among prisoners, whether it be religious or racial, so that they kept fighting amongst themselves instead of addressing the issues that were core demands for all of us, whether it be the exorbitant rates of commissary or the conditions or the torture or treatment or solitary. So, they really feed on those things. And that’s what’s really important about this strike and continuing on. And what we’ve learned from the prison hunger strikes is an agreement to end hostilities. So, while there may be differences on religious and racial boundaries, we can still come together over these core demands, like this list of 10 demands that these prisoners have drafted.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, the demands are?

COLE DORSEY: Yet, the demands—you know, specifically, number one is the immediate improvements to all the conditions of prisons, and prison policies that recognize the humanity. Again, I said this whole declaration is really a declaration of humanity. But the humanity of imprisoned men and women—this is now almost 2.5 million people. These are our sons and daughters and mothers and fathers. These are people that are neighbors in our community, especially most marginalized working-class, poor people, black and brown people especially. So, an end to the draconian, racist laws, like gang enhancements, that automatically increase a person’s bid by 10 years just because of their last name or their uncle or where they’re from, what part of town. It can be completely arbitrary. But, again, that points to the issue that it’s more about warehousing than it is about rehabilitation, or even making money through these corporations that do profit the millions.

But some other demands are like Pell Grants for prisoners. They should be paid for the work that they do. Why should prisoners—when I was in, I got 13 cents an hour, so I was a disgruntled employee. I chose to find ways to sabotage my lawnmower so I didn’t have to mow the lawn. I don’t want to have to mow the lawn for 13 cents an hour, you know, so I’m going to run over rocks and bushes. But it gets you out of the cell. That’s why people take these jobs. Or they give you incentives, you know, to have more freedom or have an extra cake during dinner, those kinds of things.

So, the major demands are Pell Grants reinstated; the end of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, so prisoners can start to, again, fight some of the conditions in the legal courts and have access to the legal library on a real basis, where they can really get the material and have assistance; an end to oversentencing, of black and brown people especially, the most marginalized communities; end to the racist gang enhancements. And again, no—we believe no human being should spend the rest of their life in prison.

Most of these conditions, as some of the other strike leaders had mentioned, especially the lead-up to 2016, was that if these jobs that they’re now giving to prisoners—meat packing and call center workers—if they were giving at a prevailing wage in those same communities that those prisoners came from prior, then they wouldn’t be in the prisons now. But the system has recognized that it’s easier to control the population while they’re inside prisons than it is if they’re outside, because then they have the right to strike, they have federal protections, whereas inside it can just be called an insurrection. Automatically, the leaders are sent to solitary. Automatically, they’re transferred. Automatically, privileges are denied—no more family, no more phone calls. So, from a social justice and human rights aspect, it’s really draconian, and it’s a lost era.

AMY GOODMAN: Cole, I want to bring—

COLE DORSEY: And the only way their voices are going to be heard is through us on the outside amplifying their voices and letting it be heard and known as much as we can through medias like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Cole Dorsey, I want to bring Amani Sawari into the conversation. Can you talk about the various actions? And, I mean, this is planned for something like 17 states. What form these actions will take, Amani?

AMANI SAWARI: So, it really depends on the location and the status of the prisoner. So, as you mentioned earlier, prisoners have the ability to participate in the strike in a multitude of ways, one being work stoppages. So, if prisoners do have jobs in the prison, they can participate by refusing to go into work.

But some prisoners don’t have the privilege to have a job, so they can participate through a sit-in, which would just be prisoners coming together and sitting in a common area, refusing to move, doing so peacefully.

Some prisoners don’t have access to being a part of general population, so they can participate by boycotting. And this is done through just not spending any money in the prison. All of the money that prisoners spend or that families send into the prison do support the system. So prisoners are refusing to talk on the phone—that’s a cost—even buying commissary, as you mentioned, or buying clothes, hygiene products, cosmetic products. Anything that they would be spending money on in the prison, they’re refusing to do so for those two-and-a-half weeks.

And then, for prisoners that don’t even have access to spending money, they don’t have the privileges to do that. They’ll be participating through hunger strikes. So, regardless of where a prisoner is or what their status is, they are given food, and they can refuse to take that food. And that’s a way that they can participate in the strike, regardless of where they are or what their privilege status is.

AMY GOODMAN: Cole just mentioned, in the list of demands, ending gang enhancement laws. Amani, explain what they are.

AMANI SAWARI: So, racist gang enhancements are the act of labeling individuals with different gang associations just based on where they’re from or even the tattoo markings on their body. Those might be associated with a gang, and then prisoners are then labeled with that gang. And then, when they get into prison, really being a part of a gang is one of the only forms of insurance that a prisoner might have. So even if they weren’t associated with a gang prior to being incarcerated, they find themselves in those populations. And then, when prisoners refuse to be a part of a gang, they are subject to isolation. So, that’s really miserable being isolated within an isolated place. So a lot of prisoners just gravitate towards their racial groups, different gang groups, based on locations where they were from, the people that they see from high school, and then they just gravitate towards those groups.

And then those labels are used against prisoners. So, where they’re placed in the prison, where their room assignment is, that is determined by the gang that they’re in. And then, when staff officials want to incite violence, they’ll switch up those room assignments, place gang members and rival groups into different assignments, which is what happened in Lee County. Prisoners were—their lockers were taken away, and then they were placed into rival units, which incited violence. And that went on for over seven hours.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s when how many people died? Seven people were killed, prisoners?

AMANI SAWARI: Yes, at least seven people were killed, but there have been numbers of nine and 12. Actually, when prisoners were killed, a few were transferred to other prisons to sort of lower those numbers. But seven is the official number of prisoners that were killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Cole, how do you organize? You’re on the other side of the bars now. You’re free. How are you helping to organize this strike on the outside?

COLE DORSEY: Yeah, so there’s a number of ways that we’ve learned to adapt to organize, and number one is through correspondence. We have regular correspondence. We do have members. I’ve got a phone call in my pocket that I keep on me 24 hours a day, and I receive phone calls from different facilities across the country, typically on the West Coast. But I can relay messages from one facility, within one facility to the same facility, just in different cellblocks, to let know what movement is happening, what’s going on. We found a number of different ways. The Bay View has been instrumental in getting the word out. San Francisco Bay View has been a publication for a number of years.

AMY GOODMAN: The newspaper.

COLE DORSEY: It’s gone into facilities across the country, and it’s really been pivotal in spreading the word of this type of collective action that prisoners have been taking.

But there’s a number of different ways that we’ve found to creatively get the message through to prisoners. And a lot of times it’s word of mouth. So, we’ll send a thousand or 500 newsletters in, that just, you know, are innocuous on the front, that describe, “It’s winter. These are the things to stay warm and cool.” And buried on the inside, in very small text, would be the actual important information that we want to get through. They found those out, and we anticipate they will, but the number that get through is enough to be able to transfer from prisoner to prisoner.

And again, as their—our leaders especially are transferred. Imam Siddique Hasan, even in the lead-up to this strike, has been withdrawn his phone privileges, thrown in solitary. And our leaders consistently have been retaliated against physically and also tortured through solitary confinement. So, it’s not to be taken lightly. But we’ve found, through telephone communication, connection, relationships with families, getting information, also direct communication through visits, and a number of different creative ways, that we can’t explain all to you—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re an electrical line—Cole, you’re an electric—

COLE DORSEY: —but we definitely can get the word out. And the great part is that prisoners share this information. So, even if it’s only sent to one person, that gets shared to another person, that goes to another facility. So, it can get shared either through word of mouth or directly through the piece of paper. But word travels quickly throughout prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re clearly redefining a cellphone. Cole Dorsey is an electrical lineman who’s a member of the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Amani Sawari is a prison strike spokesperson. And we’re going to continue with them, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Heather Ann Thompson when we come back from break.


AMY GOODMAN: “George Jackson” by Bob Dylan. That’s right. George Jackson, 47 years ago, he was killed by guards at San Quentin when he attempted to escape.

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Next story from this daily show

From Attica to South Carolina: Heather Ann Thompson on the Roots of the Nationwide Prison Strike

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