September 12th, 2016
“This is how struggle starts … I’m very, very encouraged … Keep going … I don’t think it can be stopped.”
—Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, co-founder of Black Autonomy Federation and original Black Panther Party member.
Summer is drawing to an end here in the South, but in the region’s prisons—and across the most incarcerated nation on earth—things are just starting to heat up.
Friday (September 9), marked the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising. It also saw the launch of a coordinated series of nationwide work stoppages and hunger strikes by incarcerated Americans, the largest of its kind in history.
Organizers (and, as a formerly incarcerated person, I am one of them) currently estimate that incarcerated workers at over 40 facilities in at least 24 states are participating. Since prison administrations’ knee-jerk response to these actions is to lock down the facilities—and since, as I predicted when I previewed these actions in The Influence last month, mainstream media coverage is muted—it’s difficult to gauge precisely how widespread the strikes are, where exactly inmates are striking, and how successful they’ve been.
But reports have trickled in from around the country, and through networks of organizers, media reports and communications from incarcerated people, we’ve worked to keep track.
A Spreading Wave of Resistance
One of the earliest came from Holman State Prison in Atmore, Alabama. Alabama has been a hotbed of prison organizing since at least 2014, when the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), inspired by the 2010 Georgia prison strikes, began to crystallize. Growing out of a class for jailhouse lawyers, FAM has become one of the leading voices in national discussions of prison reform and abolition.
Holman inmates reported at noon on September 9:
“…all inmates at Holman Prison refused to report to their prison jobs without incident. With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as the men at Holman laid on their racks reading or sleeping. Officers are performing all tasks.”
At publication time, Holman’s officers are still performing those tasks, with no signs of change.
Prior to the official strike kickoff, inmates at Holmes Correctional Institution, in the Florida panhandle, led an uprising that forced the facility to be shut down. Over 400 inmates participated in that rebellion, which the prison administration has linked to the national strikes.
As the list of facilities involved expands, the South continues to lead the way. Prisoners in multiple Alabama prisons, at least two other Florida prisons, Fluvanna women’s prison in Virginia, and prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina* (see the South Carolina prisoners’ demands below) all engaged in various forms of resistance. Most Georgia prisoners don’t work on Fridays, but some on-the-ground reports indicate that they plan to join the actions when their work week begins today (September 12).
But the South does not stand alone. Over 400 prisoners at Kinross Correctional Facility, Michigan held a protest on the prison yard and caused property damage to the prison, prompting officials to transfer 150 of them to other facilities. Clallam Bay Correctional Center in Washington State is reportedly on lockdown after actions there.
Many women prisoners are involved: Those held at Central California Women’s Prison, a women’s prison in Nebraska, at Lincoln (Nebraska) Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Kansas, and at Merced Jail, California have either refused to work, are on hunger strike, and/or have led uprisings in their facilities.
It’s significant that so much of the resistance is focused on women’s facilities (although this certainly isn’t without precedent: The 1974 Bedford Hills and 1975 North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women uprisings are two of the most significant events in US prison history). Women, especially young women of color, make up the fastest-growing corrections population. The history of resistance in US women’s prisons continues to rapidly unfold, even if the media pays it little attention.
Resistance hasn’t been limited to state prisons. Detainees at Guantanamo Bay have been holding a hunger strike. And detainees at Stewart Detention Center, an immigration detention center in southwest Georgia—controversially operated by the notorious Corrections Corporation of America—which has seen multiple incidents of resistance in recent years, also went on hunger strike over the weekend.
Support and Solidarity on the Outside
The actions haven’t been limited to jails and prisons. Friends, family and supporters of incarcerated people took to the streets across the country to express solidarity and support for the strikes.
Atlanta, Arizona, Portland, Lucasville (Ohio), Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York, Providence, Richmond, Durham, Austin, Denver, Los Angeles and dozens of other large and small US cities have seen protestors, sometimes numbering into the hundreds, take to the streets or picket prisons.
In Atlanta, where I live, about 50 people disrupted business Friday at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Aramark—companies that have exploited incarcerated labor—during street protests. According to witnesses, police responded by trying to run over protesters and dousing protesters, bystanders, and each other with pepper spray.
Police arrest a protestor in Atlanta on Friday. All photos: Jeremy Galloway
On Saturday, protesters from as far away as Atlanta and Athens, Georgia met with members of Mothers and FAMilies (of FAM) to stage a solidarity protest outside the gates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in central Alabama.
Solidarity also came from outside the US—including Quebec, and from as far away as Greece, where prisoners offered a salute to their US counterparts, and Serbia. Such a broad display of unity and support across prison walls is unprecedented.
Slavery Is Alive and Well in the US
Strike organizers in different cities and states have expressed a broad range of goals, some immediate and some longer-term, but one theme ties the actions together: an end to prison slavery.
FAM organizers point out that:
“The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution continues to permit slavery to exist in this country “as Punishment of crime, whereof the person has been duly convicted,” and the institution and enterprise of slavery was legally transferred to the State government’s prison systems.” (Read the full text of the 13th amendment here.)
The modern prison system has been built on the ashes of chattel slavery, first through the convict leasing system, then the notorious “chain gangs”—which lasted through the 1950s—up to modern mass incarceration.
As long as slavery is protected by the US Constitution, poor people and people of color will continue to find themselves victims of a harsh system that exploits free and cheap labor for the benefit of the state, corporations and the ruling class.
Today, the signs of oppression and institutional violence are inescapable. Reports of police killing unarmed people of color have become commonplace, so much so that only the most outrageous cases gain national attention. Many of us barely bat an eye at the non-stop stream of stories about people behind bars being physically or sexually abused by guards and being forced to live and work in deplorable conditions, often without access to basic medical care or adequate food.
We also live in a time of resistance which our country hasn’t seen in well over a generation, if ever. People who are directly impacted by modern mass incarceration, our nation’s draconian drug policies, police violence, laws which are intended to protect but end up criminalizing sex workers by police violence, are not only demanding change, they’re making it themselves.
That, perhaps more than anything else, sets these modern social movements apart from liberation struggles of the past.
At the actions in Atlanta on Friday, a police captain, as soon as he appeared on the scene, asked protesters, “Who are the leaders?” Our group didn’t miss a beat, responding that we’re all leaders. The system doesn’t know how to respond to a movement without leaders to intimidate, harass, or even assassinate. In fact, the tone of the police changed dramatically after that, with officers allowing us to march in the streets to our final stop at Aramark, one of the biggest prison contractors in the country.
Where Will We Stand Once the Smoke Settles?
Whether the current, growing wave of strikes will result in an end to prison slavery remains to be seen. Right now, events are unfolding so fast it’s difficult to keep pace. But one thing is certain: Like Attica before it, 9/9/2016 opened a new chapter in US prison history.
Where this goes will be up to the people on the inside putting what little freedom they have on the line, and those of us on the outside fighting for their voices be heard.
These strikes are the result of years of planning by people on both sides of the prison walls and follow on the heels of dozens of smaller strikes and uprisings* (see a partial list below) that have swept through the prison system in the last six years.
Many of us carry the scars of having lived through the largest prison system in world history for years, even decades, after we’re released—if we’re released at all. Which is why solidarity is vital.
It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the struggles of people society has branded “criminals” when we haven’t walked in their shoes. Hell, it’s even tempting for those of us who have served time to turn our backs and forget about our incarcerated neighbors once we leave those jail and prison cells.
But incarcerated people are our neighbors today—odds are there’s a county jail, probably even a state detention facility, in your backyard—and most incarcerated people will be released one day.
Slavery is alive and well in the modern US. The wheels to undo it are in motion at this very moment. How will we respond when they ask where we were while they screamed out for compassion, support, and solidarity? On which side of history will we wake up tomorrow?
Now, perhaps more than ever before in our lives, it’s time to ask ourselves such questions.
The prison strikes are sponsored and supported by a broad coalition, including Free Alabama Movement, the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) of the Industrial Workers of the World, The Ordinary People Society, various Anarchist Black Cross Federation local chapters, the National Lawyers Guild, It’s Going Down, along with many other organizations and individuals.
For updates on what actions are taking place and which facilities are currently on lockdown, visit the IWOC Facebook page.
This site also has a link to a document with regularly updated information on the actions.
* South Carolina Prisoners’ Demands:
In representation of those in South Carolina not working or refusing to work on Sept 9, 2016—
- We want free labor to be ended in South Carolina. We want to be fairly compensated for our labor. This can be done by reinstituting state pay for general labor, and labor wages for private industry jobs
- SCDC stop removing mental health patients from treatment programs back to general population units for disciplinary infractions
- SCDC allow lifers to advance through the classification system to lower custody prisons like all others. Particularly to minimum security prisons. We also demand they not be removed for one minor disciplinary infraction
- The SC parole board decisions be more grounded in scientific analysis. Rather then emotions.
- SCDC reinstitute GED educational classes for all that want to obtain a GED. This includes hiring GED instructors. We also demand meaningful re/habilitation programs be instituted for all that desire to help. This include more meaningful treatment and re entry programs that will accommodate the number of prisoners that are requesting such
- SCDC end excessive canteen and visitation vendor machine prices
- SCDC end the practice of in camera video doctor visits for medical and mental health concerns.
- The State of SC end the truth in sentencing warehousing law and the habitual sentencing of life sentences
Published by SJ, Founder of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak
** There’s been a continuous stream of hunger strikes, work stoppages, and other resistance across US prisons since the 2010 prison strikes at multiple Georgia prisons and the 2013 statewide hunger strikes in California.
“Let the crops rot in the field” has been one rallying cry (it originated in the FAM manifesto).
Here’s a summary of some of the incidents from recent months (compiled by the website It’s Going Down):
- Mid-July: Hunger strike breaks out at Ely State Prison in Nevada. Call-in campaign organized in solidarity.
- Late July: Hunger strike breaks out at Lucasville Prison. Call-in campaign organized in soliarity.
- Late July: Hunger strikes at Waupun grow in Wisconsin.
- Early August: Two rebellions break out in Indiana jails.
- 8/2: March and rally in support of prison strike in Durham, NC.
- 8/2: Holman prison errupts in a riot again as a dorm is taken.
- 8/10: Noise demonstration organized in support of prison strike in Atlanta.
- 8/10: Noise demonstration organized in Durham, NC in support of prison strike.
- 8/10: Freeway demonstration organized in Houston, TX.
- 8/12: Call-in campaign organized for Holman prisoners involved in latest riot.
- 8/13: Mobilization in Milwaukee, WI in support of Dying to Live hunger-strike.
- 8/14: Phone zap organized in solidarity with Dying to Live hunger-strike in Wisconsin.
- 8/24: Noise demonstration in Atlanta, GA
- 8/26-28: Bend the Bars Conference. Midwestern Convergence in support of prisoner struggles. More info here, Columbus, OH
- 8/27: March and demonstration in connection with Bend the Bars Conference, Columbus, OH
- 8/27: Incarcerated Lives Matter protest outside of Donaldson Correctional Facility. Organized by Mothers and Familes (MAF), and part of wider tour, Bessemer, AL
- August 27th: Bike ride to Sing Sing prison, New York
Jeremy Galloway is harm reduction coordinator at Families for Sensible Drug Policy, program director at Southeast Harm Reduction Project, co-founder of Georgia Overdose Prevention, and a state-certified peer recovery specialist. He lives in Atlanta. He writes and speaks regionally about drug policy reform, harm reduction, his experiences, and the importance of including the voices of directly impacted people in policy decisions.