National Strike Demands Prison Reform
At this very moment, a strike is taking place in the United States. This strike is not comprised of teachers, Amazon workers, or fast food workers. This strike is a prison strike. According to Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a nationwide collective of prisoners who are leading the strike, this strike is in response to a riot on April 16 at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue,” JLS explained in their pre-strike statement. “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals.”
The reasons for the 2018 prison strike are similar to those for the prison strike in 2016, which was the largest in U.S. history but received very little media attention. These reasons include better living conditions, government funding for education, and fair wages. Brian Sonenstein, writing for the Mintpress, wrote that, as a result, prisoners are experiencing a crackdown for speaking about the national strike. Sonenstein writes, “Ohio prison officials revoked phone access for one year and suspended other privileges for an incarcerated activist, who spoke publicly in support of a nationwide prison protest scheduled to begin August 21.”
This, however, is just one of the problems faced by prisoners. Maurice Chammah from the Marshall Project writes about the experiences of Robert Allen Webb, a disabled prisoner who was kept in extreme heat during summer months. Webb, during a visit with his brother Sidney, suggested he might not make it out of prison alive. Months later Webb was dead; the chaplain who called Sidney told him that Webb’s body was hot to the touch. While some prisons, including Guantanamo Bay, keep temperatures in a “liveable range,” many do not. There are numerous other examples, including Arizona prisoners whose shoes melt due to the extreme heat and prisoners in New Hampshire who flood their cells in order to keep them cool.
Chammah’s article also looks at the health conditions of some prisoners in Texas, noting that of the 145,167 people incarcerated, 30,678 are prescribed psychotropic medication, 27,256 are prescribed high blood pressure medication, and 3,241 are over the age of 65.
The organizers of the strike presented a list of demands which include reforming prison policies and improving conditions to respect inmates’ humanity, ending prison slavery, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act so prisoners have an avenue to address violations of their rights, increasing access to and funding for rehabilitation for all, and ending “racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans.” The last is especially important in southern states, where black prisoners are often denied parole if the victim was white. One of the biggest demands is voting rights for all, regardless of their incarceration status, which is a major problem especially in poor communities and communities of color.
According to teleSUR, Palestinians have expressed solidarity with the prisoners. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine released a statement saying, “We write today as imprisoned Palestinians of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, held in Israeli jails for our participation in struggle for the liberation of our land and people from colonialism and occupation.”
There are small, limited signs of change. In Texas, the Houston Chronicle reports, “The Texas prison system on Friday voted to drastically slash the cost of inmate calls home by more than 75 percent with a new phone contract more favorable to inmates and their families. Now, instead of paying an average of 26 cents per minute, prisoners will pay 6 cents per minute — no matter the destination of the call. Also, the limit on phone calls was increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.” If the strike is successful, this minor adjustment will be followed by more comprehensive and meaningful reforms, but the possibility of this remains uncertain.