For seven hours, prisoners in the Lee Correctional Institution (LCI) fought over outside territories and money with homemade knives while guards kept at a distance and awaited support. Seven died, and 17 were injured, The Associated Press reported. During the riot, bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other,” an inmate told the AP. In response to the mass casualty, prisoners in 17 states have participated in the protest of what they believe to be inhumane conditions which, in part, lead to the death of LCI prisoners.
The strikes first began on August 2 and will continue until September 9. The call to action was launched by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a collective of prisoners who fight for the rights of incarcerated people while behind bars. The protests have also garnered the support of a prisoner advocacy group, the Incarcerated Workers Organizers Committee (IWOC).
During the peaceful strike, according to a press release from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, prisoners will avoid reporting to work, participate in collective sit-ins, boycott all spending and even refuse to eat.
“The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body,” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told Vox. “If they choose not to go to work and just sit in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinner, if they choose not to clean or do the yard-work, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”
Within the press release, JLS details a list of ten demands set forth by prisoners as they seek a change in living conditions and prison policies that would ‘recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women’ and help bring an end to abuse, racial targeting and ‘prison slavery’ by way of low wages.
NATIONAL PRISON STRIKE AUGUST 21-SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018 pic.twitter.com/Mzbb4e96yp— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak #August21 (@JailLawSpeak) April 24, 2018
Though the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, there is an exemption in which involuntary servitude can be utilized as punishment for a crime. In what is considered modern-day slavery, low prison wages was recently highlighted with prisoners who have been a part of the voluntary wildfire fighter team, earning $1 per hour with an addition of $2 per day.
When speaking on the disparagingly low wages, Gainesville Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) Secretary Karen Smith told Blavity the absurdly low wages project a message of inferiority.
“If a person isn’t valued even at the minimum wage, what message does that send to them?" Smith said. "We hope they can learn to be responsible and pay their way… but their potential is lost to this prison industrial complex, and you can’t put an amount to that.”
Smith considers herself an abolitionist and does not believe the prison system can be reformed as is, especially considering its history.
“It’s not a coincidence that we ended slavery in 1865, and the Department of Corrections was established in 1868,” she continued. “They needed an agency to manage the convict-leasing program that slavery turned into. The only thing they needed was to slap that convict label onto people. That’s all they’ve ever needed to oppress.”
The strike comes two years after what is considered the largest prison strike in history, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak reported. That strike spread across the country and started for similar reasons. Now, this one continues a trend of prisoners fighting for what they see as fundamental human rights and has the potential to beat record numbers set by its predecessor.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP), a nonprofit which advocates for the rights of low wage workers and those who are unemployed, has also vocalized its support of the movement.
“These individuals are fighting for humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation and sentencing reform. Prisons and all employers must be held accountable, both to honoring the fundamental human rights embodied by our nation’s labor and employment laws and to employing people in living-wage jobs after they are released from prison," NELP said in a statement sent to Blavity. "This is especially urgent when the employer has benefited directly from the individual’s labor while incarcerated.”
The IWOC reports that as of Tuesday, prisoners have held strikes in Washington, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Indiana, New Mexico, Florida and even Canada, where inmates at Burnside County Jail announced their solidarity with the American strike and drafted their list of demands. The Canadian prisoners want better health care and rehabilitation programs, which mirrors the calls for humane treatment of those incarcerated.
As for those in the U.S., some prisoners making a stand have faced opposition. Two men in Ohio, David Easley and James Ward, have been put in isolation, according to the IWOC.
For those on the outside who wish to get involved, follow @JailLawSpeak and @IWW_IWOC on Twitter to share updates and receive phone action announcements; call facilities and voice prisoner’s demands when you see a phone blast announced and spread awareness about the strike and prisoner’s grievances.
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