Following a Nationwide Strike, Prisoners Say They Face Repressive Repercussions

A member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee discusses the retaliation prisoners face when fighting for their rights.
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Voters in Florida last week approved Amendment 4, a ballot measure restoring voting rights to most felons. Although prisoners themselves were unable to cast ballots in support of their eventual re-enfranchisement, they were nevertheless leading the charge.

Amendment 4 shone a familiar light on the reinstatement of felon voting rights, which, along with issues regarding the conditions of incarceration, law enforcement, and legislation curtailing prisoners' other rights, were focal points of a nationwide prison strike earlier this year. From August 21st to September 9th, prisoners across 17 states and one Canadian province refused work, boycotted commissaries, and staged various forms of protest, all in the name of inmates' rights. The strike built solidarity among participants, won the attention of the public, and forged the way for initiatives like Amendment 4.

Despite this success, many prisoners say they continue to pay a steep price for their struggles. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a labor union for prisoners that served as one of the strike's main support groups, began to receive word of repression even before the strike began—and apparently still does months after its conclusion. IWOC accuses corrections department employees of retaliating against inmates nationwide with solitary confinement, physical abuse, destruction of property, institutional lockdown, and obstruction of access to legal aid, communications, and other resources. These accusations have also been reported by the National Lawyers Guild, which endorsed the strike.

Pacific Standard spoke with Brooke Terpstra, a member of the IWOC's national media subcommittee, about the strike and the retaliation from authorities that followed.

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What inspired the recent prison strike?

In the larger sense, another national strike was inevitable—a logical progression and escalation in this period of increasing agitation and collective prisoner action dating roughly back to the Georgia work stoppages of 2010. This is a period of increasing prisoner politicization and action.

In the immediate sense, the strike was called directly in response to the state-manipulated bloodbath that went down at Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina the night of April 15th. In the end, 12 prisoners lost their lives at each others' hands across three dormitories in a fight stoked and set up by the jailers. It was a wake-up call illustrating that it was up to prisoners themselves to take action to fight the abomination of their conditions, as well as to galvanize themselves as a class and unify, rather than ever kill each other again at the behest and approval of the state.

How many inmates participated in the strike?

Numbers of participants are hard to ascertain due to the obvious difficulties of communications with those inside being constricted or prevented by the state, the prison system being so vast and pocketed, as well as open participation guaranteeing repression and steep consequences for any striker. But we continue to receive correspondence confirming strike activity at additional facilities. As of now, we have confirmation of strike activity by prisoner groups in 32 facilities across 17 states and one Canadian province.

What kinds of actions did inmates take during the strike?

All kinds of activity have been confirmed. The initial call by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak [a group of incarcerated prisoners' rights advocates] in April asked for four different types of possible action: work stoppages, sit-downs, hunger strikes, and boycotts of phones and commissary. The most common actions were hunger strikes and boycotts, which isn't surprising since [corrections department employees] without exception meet work stoppages and sit-downs with brutal retaliation and punishment.

How have prison authorities responded to the strike?

[Corrections department employees] across the board nationwide adopted the strategy of simultaneous denial and preemptive repression. While denying there was any organizing or strike activity, they were engaging in wholesale surveillance, shakedowns, transfers, and trumping up charges on high-profile prisoners to isolate them in solitary even well before the start date of the strike. On the outside during and after the strike, it was noted that different departments of corrections were engaging in lockdowns and, in order to hide their repression, were not reporting them on visitation hotlines or webpages. One institution in Florida was even sequestering and locking down a group of prisoners in a shower area rather than declare a facility-wide lockdown.

The largest action taken in response to the strike was in Pennsylvania, where the Department of Corrections concocted a system-wide dope overdose scare as pretense to institute, first, a statewide lockdown of all facilities, and then, to enact a draconian surveillance and repression package affecting visitation and all forms of mail, including legal correspondence. There has been absolutely no physical evidence presented even now to support the claims of a widespread dope wave coming through the mailrooms and is now largely considered a "mass psychogenic" episode by epidemiologists.

The road to change is undoubtedly a long one, but have there been any signs of the strike's success?

Yes, there have been signs of success on several levels. On the legislative level, for example, campaigns to restore voting rights and end life without parole in several states have picked up momentum, and now are readily seen as part of a larger unified human rights platform for prisoners.

Underlying the broad set of 10 national, long-term demands was a realpolitik set of immediate goals for the strike. These goals were threefold: one, drive the prisoners' human rights crisis into the mainstream media and conversation; two, galvanize prisoners themselves as a unified class against the prison system, rather than against each other, so that an atrocity like Lee Correctional can never happen again; three, for self-organized and a self-determined prisoner movement to take their rightful seat at the table of outside movements and speak for themselves. Incontrovertibly, the strike gained ground on all three fronts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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