Two inmates from a Minnesota state prison discuss organizing a strike—and why they feel rehabilitative programming is still inadequate.

Late last year, inmates at a high-security prison outside of Minneapolis participated in a week-long strike to protest against administrative changes—and won their demands.

From November 30th to December 4th, more than 300 of the 1,000 adult male prisoners held at Rush City Correctional Facility went on strike against a proposed change to canteen distribution. The canteen, from which inmates purchase everything from food to medical supplies to electronics, previously distributed orders within a week, but new policy changes would double that wait time. Issues regarding canteens have been central to prison organizing, typically following accusations of price-gouging.

To push back against the new canteen policy, inmates refused to appear for their assignments or participated in work slowdowns. Some of these jobs relate to the inner workings of the facility, such as the kitchen or education units, but other inmates are employed for "industry work" by outside contractors, like Minnesota-based Anagram Balloons, which sells party favors. Inmates report that 155 prison laborers for Anagram Balloons participated in the strike.

With almost a third of the population involved in the action, Rush City administrators soon abandoned the new canteen policy. On December 6th—just two days after the strike concluded—prison staff was notified of the scheduling reversal, and the canteen was operating as normal by December 10th. This pattern conforms to the success of other instances of prison organizing, such as the national strike that occurred a few months prior, which called for—and won in Florida—the restoration of voting rights for felons, along with other demands.

Pacific Standard interviewed two Rush City inmates, Antonio Williams and Demetrius Dobbins, about the strike, its organization, and their future plans. Facilitated by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prison union, the exchange was conducted through email and JPay, a third-party provider that charges inmates for communications services. Williams and Dobbins provided joint answers.

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What was the genesis of the strike by inmates at Rush City Correctional Facility?

The final straw was the administration attempting to delay canteen distribution an additional week. But the [Department of Corrections] has a culture of not holding officers accountable for misconduct and unprofessionalism. Rush City is extremely negligent in this regard, and so this was a major contributing element.

How was the strike organized? Did prisoners have to coordinate with each other in secret?

The strike was effective because all gangs and races united. A handful of individuals worked together to plan the most effective ways of going about a non-violent protest. Yes, the strike was organized in secrecy—it had to be! In the past, any individual who could have been identified as an organizer would have certainly been sent to solitary confinement. I [Antonio] was sent to solitary confinement the day before the strike and placed on "administrative segregation" [solitary confinement] for telling other prisoners to learn about the policies.

How many inmates were involved in the strike?

Over 300 prisoners participated in the strike. For the industry work area, approximately 200 prisoners overall "laid in," i.e. did not show up for work. A large portion of the prisoners that came to work in industry either neglected their work or produced little. While some prisoners in the education unit laid in, many in the kitchen decided to lay-in, which made the [prison staff's] job harder.

What was the response from the prison administration?

In response to the peaceful protest, a specially assembled inmate representative meeting was held with the prison executive team, which included the warden and other top prison officials. As a result, within a short period of time, the administration released a memo saying canteen distribution would remain the same, with the exception of a minor schedule change regarding distribution of electronics.

How long did the strike last?

The strike started on November 30th, 2018, and lasted to December 4th, 2018. Although it seemed like some of the supervisory team weren't pleased with the actions we decided to take, the warden however did seem to take our concerns seriously.

Were the strikers supported by outsiders?

Yes, prisoners got support from IWOC, their family, and friends. People on the outside were calling up to the prison and central offices voicing our concerns. And I truly believe if IWOC wouldn't have alerted the media, the warden wouldn't have taken prisoners serious. And without them showing the prison that I had a lot of support, I [Antonio] would still be in solitary confinement.

Are there plans for future organizing?

Prisoners are emboldened by what took place because we see what a little unity can do.... Our struggles are not over though. There is still no system in place that truly holds correctional officers accountable for misconduct and unprofessionalism. We're still being preyed upon economically with the high canteen prices and slave labor.

Rehabilitative programming is still inadequate. Thousands of people on parole are still being sent back to prison every year on technical violations, having committed no new crimes. Lifers are still being denied parole, having served 20, 30, or more years, and having done everything the parole board has told them to do. So yes, we still have organizing to do and the vast majority of us want to do it peacefully, because we don't want to add fuel to the fire. We're not the mindless animals that society has been told we are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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