Siddique Hasan, a self-described revolutionary from Savannah, Georgia, has been waiting for a moment like this one, when prisoners across the country band together and say “enough is enough” when it comes to being treated like a slave.
“It’s time for a broader struggle,” he told ThinkProgress during his daily phone time in Ohio’s supermax prison. “People have to lift up their voice with force and determination, and let them know that they’re dissatisfied with the way things are actually being run.”
So far this year, prisoners have been doing just that.
In a growing movement largely going unnoticed by the national media, inmates all over the country are starting to stand up against the brutal conditions and abuses they have faced for decades.
Beginning in March, thousands of people locked away in Michigan prisons launched a hunger strike over the amount and quality of food they were served by a private food vendor. That vendor should have been an improvement from its predecessor, which fed inmates refrigerated meat, trash, and rodent saliva. Instead, the new food provider served small portions of watery food. And what started as a seemingly isolated protest at one facility quickly spread to two others in the state.
In April, inmates in seven Texas facilities refused to go to work in protest of astronomical health care costs, their inability to use work time as credit for their parole, and having to live and labor in extreme heat with minimal compensation. In lieu of producing “mattresses, shoes, garments, brooms, license plates, printed materials, janitorial supplies, soaps, detergents, furniture, textile, and steel products,” participating strikers stayed in their cells.
“We need to be clear about one thing,” an anonymous organizer wrote, “prisoners are not looking for a lazy life in prison. They don’t want to spend their sentences sitting in a cell, eating and sleeping. They still will attend every education — rehabilitation and training programs (sic) available. They are not against work in prison — as long they (sic) receive credit for their labor and good conduct that counts towards a real parole-validation.”
Then, on May Day, prisoners hundreds of miles away in Alabama launched a strike of their own. Less than two months after riots broke out at William C. Holman Correctional Facility, an Alabama prison that’s notorious for gross medical neglect, poor sanitation, and overcrowding, hundreds of detainees in at least three facilities declined to make license plates, sew bedding, and labor in recycling and canning factories for 17 to 30 cents an hour.
One of the prisoners who organized the protest, Kinetik Justice, described the strikes in Alabama as a “struggle for freedom, justice and equality.”
“As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system, and which in all entities is an economical system,” he explained to Democracy Now. “Therefore, for the reform and changes that we’ve been fighting for in Alabama, we’ve tried petitioning through the courts. We’ve tried to get in touch with our legislators and so forth. And we haven’t had any recourse.”
Finally, in June, Wisconsin followed suit, with a smaller group of prisoners waging a hunger strike against solitary confinement.
At first, strikes in different states appeared isolated, connected only by their common goals. In reality, the actions are part of a unified prisoner movement that’s sweeping the country. And they’re gearing up for a bigger protest that could force even Wall Street to take notice.
The makings of a movement
Prisons in the United States are inhumane and abusive places, and there is a long history of rising up against mass incarceration. But the level of coordination and solidarity driving the most recent wave of protests is relatively new.
As Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Jimi Del Duca put it, “The days of divide and conquer — it’s not so easy to do that anymore.”
Union members and volunteers with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a project started by the IWW, are helping prisoners across the country to unionize and fight toward their collective freedom. The IWOC allows prisoners to join the union for free, and had a hand in the Texas, Wisconsin, and Alabama strikes.
Once they join the IWW, detainees can relay information to allies — and each other — across state lines. They coordinate and run their own campaigns with the assistance of people on the outside. IWOC sets them up with a network of penpals who eventually become informants, according to Del Duca. Some people, like Hasan, use prison phones and email servers to talk to supporters. In other cases, prisoners use contraband cellphones to get in touch with one another.
Now, they’re teaming up with prison reform organizations throughout the U.S. to prepare for a massive strike targeting people’s wallets.
“Prisoners make traffic signs. They make license plates. They make sheet metal. They work in shoe shops. Prisoners do all kinds of things and they’re not being paid for it,” Hasan explained. “These corporations come to the prison and get contracts with them and get cheap labor so they don’t have to pay traditional workers. Prisoners get no social security. They get no overtime.”
In federal and state correctional facilities around the country, detainees toil in factories or work as field hands for little to no money at all. Prison authorities claim work programs are rehabilitative and give detainees valuable job skills for their reentry. That can be true, with the right program and fair wages. But most prison labor programs are actually contributing to a multi-billion dollar shadow industry. Prisons strike deals with big corporations to provide cheap labor for large kickbacks, while paying workers mere cents. In turn, corporations sell the products supplied by prisoners at market value, and are able to cut costs by firing non-prison workers who have to be paid minimum wage.
The U.S. military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, and McDonald’s are among the beneficiaries of prison labor. Meanwhile, prisoners who perform backbreaking work, such as shoveling snow for 20 cents a day or fighting wildfires for less than $4 a day, can’t afford to make phone calls, purchase commissary items, or request medical attention. What little money they do make on the job is nowhere near enough to cover the costs of their survival.
“In one voice, rising from the cells of long term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016,” reads a call to action posted in April. “Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school to prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls. When we abolish slavery, they’ll lose much of their incentive to lock up our children, they’ll stop building traps to pull back those who they’ve released.”
‘We’re not slaves’
Hasan is no stranger to fighting back against oppressive conditions. In fact, he’s on death row for his role in the 1993 Lucasville uprising that ended with 10 people dead at the hands of prisoners. Prisoners hoped to keep things nonviolent and take guards hostage until they were allowed to make a comment to the press about the brutal conditions they were facing: regular beatings by guards, overcrowding, terrible health care, the inability to talk on the phone for more than five minutes a year. But the nonviolent protest, which Hasan helped plan, didn’t go as expected. Instead of simply taking the guards hostage, a bunch of prisoners beat guards with baseball bats and fire extinguishers. Some of them murdered fellow detainees, who they identified as “snitches.” Multiple people were raped.
“Things got out of hand. You had a lot of prisoners with a lot of grudges, animosities and hatred in their hearts for prisoners and nonprisoners,” Hasan explained to TruthDig last year. Hasan tried to protect the guards and control the chaos, but in the end he was one of five people sentenced to capital punishment for the massacre.
Yet that death sentence hasn’t stopped him from fighting for revolutionary change. The prison conditions he’s now dealing with have only fueled his fire. He’s been on Ohio State Penitentiary’s death row for nearly two decades, and participated in numerous hunger strikes for better privileges ever since. His eyes are now set on the national work stoppage.
“What’s wrong with me talking about bringing about changes, fighting to be treated fairly, to be treated as an equal?” he asked. “In my mind, I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Hasan is one of many people working diligently to get local and faraway allies on board, writing letters and emails, making phone calls, and passing messages through outside supporters.
“When they see that it’s hard to beat the system within the system itself, and you get no meaningful redress, then you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. You have to take another route,” he said.
“This intends to be a protracted struggle. How long, I can’t say,” he continued. “But there are some things that are non-negotiable and some things that are negotiable. We have to wait til we cross that road.”
It’s hard to measure how much a company or a prison would feel the pain from prison work stoppages. While states currently save millions by employing inmates, cheap labor is easy to come by. At the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, Del Duca explained, officials simply replaced the people on strike. Detainees involved in offsite work release programs were brought in to break the strike and resume the work that prisoners refused to do — making license plates.
A national strike could do more damage, but it’s too early and difficult to predict the extent of that damage.
As someone who has been in the system since he was a child, Hasan is familiar with how authorities respond to protest and anticipates that staff will try to paint prisoners as a security risk. Nevertheless, he thinks the winds are truly changing and believes a national work stoppage will force change. Previous strikes Hasan’s been involved in have resulted in concessions from prison authorities: phone time, direct contact with fellow prisoners, religious services, and a larger range of movement.
“It’s a big scheme that corporate America and the prison system are just taking advantage [and] exploiting prisoners. And they say [we’re] the criminals. They ought to take a true look at themselves, because they’re the true criminals,” Hasan said. “We want to be treated as American citizens. We’re not slaves.”