The plantations are stirring again. From August 21, the 47th anniversary of revolutionary George Jackson’s murder at the hands of prison guards, to September 9, the 47th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, incarcerated people across the United States have joined a nationwide prison revolt. As I write this, there are reports of work stoppages, hunger strikes, and other actions coming out of Washington, Florida, Georgia, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, and even Nova Scotia. Given the immense level of repression organizers and all other uncooperative prisoners and detainees face, these reports probably represent only a fraction of the resistance.
The strikers are answering a call put out in April by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other prisoner’s groups, which was sparked by the deadly riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution. The strike demands, which cover a wide range of human rights issues, are worth reproducing here in full:
Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
Now, it should go without saying that striking prisoners and solidarity with incarcerated people aren’t popular in “establishment Amerika.” This is not a cause that will be lavished with praise, or at least attention, on the Sunday talk show circuit. News crews will not breathlessly report every detail from outside the walls or be allowed to even take guided tours of prison and jail facilities. Most politicians will not utter a single word about it, perhaps in the futile hope that ignoring it will make it vanish, perhaps in the fear that speaking about it will give it further life. In this punishment-obsessed country, incarceration is secular excommunication. Any atrocity can be inflicted on the convicted.
But as writer Zoé Samudzi recently argued, we must reject the fundamentally white supremacist and classist notion that only “innocent” and uncomplicated victims deserve justice and basic human rights, whether inside or outside prison walls. This is a logic pushed by both the most shameless boosters of the fascist, anti-human death machine known as the Amerikan injustice system, for whom exists to keep the slaves, animals, and heretics in check, and its liberal critics, for whom the value of an incarcerated or dead body is directly proportional to its respectability.
What use do radicals and revolutionaries have for respectability? Why should we accept the logic of a system and a society that criminalizes human beings for their class, their race, their gender, their immigration status, and their perceived worth to capital, when the biggest killers, thieves, and abusers, the criminals who commit atrocities on a national or international scale, sit pretty? This is a logic that must be undermined, obliterated, and replaced, not obeyed.
We know that all the jails, prisons, and detention centers that crisscross the land like hideous scars are not meant to protect an angelic “us” from a demonic “them,” or even provide a chance for rehabilitation and redemption. That’s pure fantasy. The real nature of imprisonment and crime itself is rooted in socio-economic relations, and the punishment of those who violate those relations.
What’s more, the appendages of the carceral state are not incidental to the function of U.S. capitalism or capitalism worldwide. They are vital. They are warehouses for surplus human beings, rendered unnecessary by the sin of being too poor, too queer, too transient, too Black, too Brown, or too political. They are sources of immense private and state profit, sites of daily, intimate violence and hyper-exploitation, sheer fascist brutality stripped of any pretense to democracy. The carceral state is a steel plantation.
While this plantation is lucrative, it comes with a high price for capital as well, and we’re not talking about the administrative costs foisted on the public. Despite and because of the immense repression incarcerated people face, the Amerikan gulag network is a hotbed of latent rebellion, filled with people who have no reason to prop the monster up, little to lose, and ample time to think.
Speaking on the necessity of prison organizing, George Jackson concluded that “the sheer numbers of the prisoner class and the terms of their existence make them a mighty reservoir of revolutionary potential.” He was right, of course. It’s no wonder that prison authorities have brought the hammer down on organizers like Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Malik Washington, and Ronald Brooks for even speaking about the strike. Like the overseers of old, even the rumor of rebellion on the plantation fills them with hate and fear.
The fact that this strike, like its predecessors, is led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people themselves is critical. This is not an initiative spearheaded by reformist NGOs, but by some of the most oppressed people in this shambling wreck of a country. It is a working-class uprising, plain and simple, waged not just because it is right, but because it is a matter of life and death, of survival and freedom. If recognized, the ten demands put out in the strike call would directly and immediately benefit incarcerated people and their loved ones, because they are grounded in a broad, universally applicable human rights framework. As a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak put it in an interview with the website Shadowproof, “every prisoner should be able to relate to something on that list.”
For these reasons and many more, those of us on the outside of mainstream Amerika must take up the causes of the prison movement as a key part of the fight for human liberation. We have to set aside any illusions we might still harbor that the gravediggers of capitalism are going to jump out of an old Soviet poster one day, fully politicized and blindingly white and male. That’s not what the working class looks like. That’s not how the revolution’s going to go down.
We have to stand not only with the most famous political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and Ramona Africa along with the rest of the MOVE brothers and sisters, but those lesser known fighters like Kevin Cooper, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, Keith “Malik” Washington, and the countless comrades and comrades-in-waiting who may sit and die in a prison block, unrecognized by the world.
There are many ways we can back their struggle. Supporters can put together or join solidarity demonstrations across the country. We can participate in phone zaps. We can spread the word throughout our communities (including places of detention) through flyers, stickers, posters, and good old-fashioned conversations. We can amplify the voices of the prisoners, their representatives, and support networks online and through other media outlets. We must do whatever we can to weaken and destroy the prison-industrial complex, and the racist, chauvinist, capitalist system that produced it.
Burn the plantations. Support the prisoner’s strike. Join the SPUSA in this fight against modern day slavery.
Zach Medeiros is a writer, activist, and history student from Long Beach, California.
He serves as the Male Co-Chair of the Socialist Party’s International Relations Committee. His major interests include international affairs, with a special focus on North Africa, and the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. Zach’s inspiration is to build a revolutionary socialist movement, which he reports leads him to read, “too damn much for his own damn good.” He also confesses that he does not believe in the State of Delaware, is not a horse, and has no plans to change either of those things in the future.