by Ed Lyon
Prisoners who peacefully advocate for their rights, such as by filing lawsuits and grievances, and engaging in non-violent protests, regularly risk retaliation by prison officials.
That was the case following a nationwide work strike that was called by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) – a prisoners’ rights advocacy group – and other organizations, which lasted from August 21 to September 9, 2018. Through work stoppages, sit-downs and hunger strikes, as well as boycotts of phone services and commissaries, the protesting prisoners sought 10 basic reforms from lawmakers and prison officials:
• Improved prison conditions and policies that recognize the humanity of prisoners
• An end to prison slavery, and prevailing wages for prison work
• Repeal of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a federal law that dramatically reduced the ability of prisoners to seek relief from the courts
• End life without parole sentences and repeal the Truth in Sentencing Act and Sentencing Reform Act
• Stop the disparate treatment of people of color with respect to crimes charged, sentences imposed and parole grant rates
• Repeal of gang enhancement laws targeting people of color
• Access to all rehabilitation programs regardless of the nature of a prisoner’s conviction
• More funding for rehabilitative services
• Restoration of Pell grants to prisoners, for higher education programs
• Automatic restoration of voting rights for former prisoners
Addressing the low wages paid for prison work was a top priority of the strike. Most prisoners earn from $0.14 to $0.63 per hour, on average, due to the exception clause of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery for all citizens “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Prisoners in five states receive no pay for their labor.
Of the 17 states where prisoners participated in the work strike and related protest actions, at least 12 experienced heavy and widespread retaliation as reported to the National Lawyers Guild’s Prisoner Advocacy Network via the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a prisoner labor union.
According to the IWOC, the impetus for the strike traced at least as far back as 2010, when Georgia prisoners held work stoppages to protest their conditions of confinement. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.22; Jan. 2011, p.24]. Tensions were also heightened by the deaths of seven prisoners in a riot at a South Carolina facility in April 2018. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.14; May 2018, p.12].
Brooke Terpstra, a member of the IWOC’s national media subcommittee, said prison officials responded to the 2018 work strike with both denials and preemptive actions, including increased surveillance, shakedowns and transfers of prisoners in the months leading up to the protest. Lockdowns were instituted, but not mentioned on DOC websites. Prisoners reported an increase in solitary confinement as punishment for minor or trumped-up charges.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections claimed to suffer a pervasive problem with drugs being smuggled into its facilities, though it provided no proof, Terpstra added. Regardless, prison officials instituted a statewide lockdown, increased visitation surveillance and imposed strict mail restrictions. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.1].
Reports of retaliation during and after the work strike included physical abuse, destruction of prisoners’ regular and legal property, and denial of access to courts and grievance procedures, as well as the increased use of solitary and lockdowns.
“The retaliation and repression was instantaneous and constant,” Terpstra said. “Leaders [of the strike] were picked off, one by one, and thrown into solitary in anticipation of the strike that was coming.”
“It’s much harder for prisoners to attempt to defend their rights as workers because of the basic privileges like showers, edible food, clean clothes and [even] toilet paper can be taken away in retaliation,” noted Amani Sawari, a JLS spokesperson.
In Louisiana, prisoner Ronald Brooks was transferred from the State Penitentiary at Angola after he made an appearance in support of the strike in a video shot on a contraband cell phone. The state Department of Public Safety and Corrections insisted in an email that “transfers are not punitive in nature and are not part of the disciplinary process.”
Yet Brooks’ mother said the warden at Angola admitted prison officials felt “spooked” by the impending strike when her son was transferred 250 miles away to the David Wade Correctional Center. Margarette Peppers Ray also reported that her son’s visitation privileges were suspended and his communication outside the prison was limited to a single 10-minute phone call each month. Brooks and other prisoners at David Wade were forced to wear thick jumpsuits in the summer heat, she added.
“To get any kind of coolness they’re having to lay on the concrete floor, and they’re having to place their feet into the toilet bowl just to get cooled off,” she said.
In Ohio, which already had a dismal record regarding retaliation against prisoners [see: PLN, July 2018, p.44], prisoner Siddique Abdullah Hasan received a year-long phone restriction and had his security level increased amid the imposition of a facility-wide restriction on visits. The death row prisoner was a principal in the brutal 1993 uprising in Lucasville, Ohio.
Another death row prisoner, Keith LaMar, had nothing to do with the work strike other than being Hasan’s friend. Nevertheless, Hamilton County Chief Trial Counsel Mark Peipmeier attempted to secure a date for LaMar’s execution after the strike began.
Indiana prison officials imposed a year-long restriction on contact visits upon prisoner activist Aaron McDonald. Prosecutors are also criminally charging McDonald’s mother, Leslie Hernandez, for organizing on her son’s behalf on the outside.
Florida state prisons rejected letters sent to prisoners by the Times-Union newspaper, requesting information about the work strike. The letters were characterized as a “threat to the security, order, or rehabilitative objectives of the correctional system, or the safety of any person.”
One of the strike organizers, Virginia prisoner Kevin Rashid Johnson, was moved to death row at the Sussex I prison in Waverly. Since he was not sentenced to death, he believes he was placed on death row to silence and keep him from “radicalizing” other prisoners.
The effects of the work strike were hard to gauge, according to The Marshall Project, since protests were reported in many states where prison officials denied their existence. The strike did garner extensive media coverage, including by the mainstream media – such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, Time Magazine, USA Today, NPR, Slate.com and the BBC.
“Prisoners know their conditions will not change without their leadership,” said Sawari. “The threat of retaliation does not dissuade them, it fuels their participation.”
Sources: www.commondreams.org, www.sfbayview,com, www.theguardian.com, www.psmag.com, www.incarceratedworkers.org, www.prisonpolicy.org
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