The Other Side of the Wire: Prisoners as Workers

When an area was liberated from government control, the destruction of prisons was seen as a priority and the prisoners themselves formed their own militia to fight the fascists at the front.
–SAOIRSE, Issue No 10 (Dec. 1993)
Recounting personal stories from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War

Prison as a Microcosm of Society

I spent two years in a Georgia (USA) prison, with many other terms in jail, while fighting a drug habit. Most of my days were spent almost working. I like to think I was a good worker. Sometimes the work was rewarded with small favors by a supervisor. But most of the work, just like in the free world, went unappreciated. I was never paid, thanks to an exception for slavery as punishment in the US Constitution, and I knew I could be replaced at the drop of a hat.

While I identified as an anarchist before my incarceration, it wasn’t until I neared the end of my prison term that I started to feel radicalized. A lost opportunity. I imagine I would have come around eventually but, without a doubt, the conditions inside the prison system served as a wake-up call.

I didn’t realize it at first, but I was given a moderately posh assignment working in the kitchen when I first arrived. It wasn’t easy work, but I could eat as much as I wanted which, given the food served in the chow hall and the cost of commissary items, was a big perk. While working in the kitchen I found myself favored by the staff and was quickly promoted to cook. At first I presumed this was because of my work ethic. I soon realized, however, that all the other cooks were white and that the less desirable jobs — serving food, cleaning, dishwashing — were left for black inmates.

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A rally in November 2014 at the gates of Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Stewart is one of many privately-operated detention facilities that house undocumented immigrants and state prisoners across the country.

I was later recruited by a counselor to work in the front office of the prison. I jumped on the opportunity, not only because it promised easier work, but because it would grant me easy access to the hard-to-reach counselors, among other privileges.

Despite growing up in a mixed race household and having a front-row seat to the white supremacy show, for most of my life the concept of white privilege escape me. In prison it finally clicked. With a more than 80% black population at my prison camp the  front office was staffed exclusively by white employees (the prison administration) and equally white aides (the inmates). I suddenly found myself not only being favored by the staff, but also by other inmates who wanted access to the administration.

I did my best to help the people I could in my new position, getting fellow inmates’ visitation lists approved in time for a family visit, transfers to better jobs or prisons closer to home, and I helped more than a few with legal issues in the law library. But it didn’t feel like enough. Eventually I grew disenchanted with that job, started running illegal gambling pools, and ended up getting fired. I spent the rest of my days there as a lowly dorm-orderly, cleaning up everyone elses messes to get ready for daily inspection.

Prisons are an obvious case of oppression by the ruling class. Unfortunately, unless we’re incarcerated ourselves or have a loved one behind bars, we have little exposure to that world. This is a separation we need to address as workers.

Most prison and jail inmates are forced (or more often coerced) to work. In my state inmates aren’t paid at all. In some more “progressive” state or federal prisons inmates make, at most, a few dollars a day. And the work isn’t easy. If you’ve seen pictures of the old chain gangs you have an idea the conditions they face. The chains are gone, but the basic idea behind the chain gang remains unchanged.

On the rare occasion inmates do refuse to work, they’re dealt with swiftly. This usually means being locked in isolation with no privileges and only a Bible to read until they come to their senses. If they don’t give in they might be sent to an even less desirable prison where they won’t have to work, but they’ll have no freedom of movement and less chance for parole.

Prison, for me, served as an extreme model of social relations in a capitalist society. The racism was blindingly obvious. It permeates every level of the justice system. But the interesting thing I found is that the social relations between workers and bosses, while much more extreme, also remain fundamentally the same. The bosses (mostly) controlled what we did, but it’s the inmates who make the prison run. And they can bring it to a stop.

What Can We Do?

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George Jackson writing a letter. He was sentenced to “one year to life” and was killed in 1971 by prison guards during an alleged escape attempt.

As radicals on the outside it can be difficult to build relationships with incarcerated people, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Networks for letter-writing to prisoners are usually visible in anarchist circles. Often they’re centered around writing to political prisoners. This is important, but it’s not enough to correct the social problems created by prisons. Political prisoners, especially those with high profiles, likely receive plenty of letters already. We need to express solidarity with political prisoners, but we also need to realize that almost all prisoners are ultimately locked up for political reasons and almost all prisoners are part of the working class.

We may not want to associate with thieves or drug dealers, but these are sometimes the most obvious victims of socioeconomic marginalization. They are our fellow workers. And we can’t dismantle prisons — or capitalism — without them. (If you’re worried about safety, which is a legitimate concern, many groups have a post office box they’ll let you use)

Solidarity means stepping outside our comfort zone. If you don’t want to write to rapists and child molesters, that’s understandable. But as horrible as their crimes might be, these are still oppressed people. They are forced to live and work in terrible conditions. They rarely go outside except to work (if at all). They barely receive enough food to survive unless people from outside send them money. They rarely receive adequate medical care, even for the most debilitating conditions. As anarchists we don’t have the luxury of choosing which members of the working class we’ll fight to protect.

Mail call was one of the few times, aside from daily inspections, where I experienced absolute silence. No one mutters a word as the names are called out. Few experiences, even in the outside world, can match the joy of receiving an unexpected letter in prison. It is literally the highlight of many inmates’ time inside.

Letter writing is only a beginning. We need to build lasting relationships with our fellow workers on the inside, but we also need to give them the tools to fight their oppression. Books are one of the most powerful weapons we can provide for them.

As anarchists and radicals we should already be in the habit of educating ourselves and each other. Opportunities for education are extremely limited in prison. I was fortunate to have family members to send me books. Many inmates don’t have that. Their learning might be limited to old National Geographics or the odd non-fiction book that finds its way in (often an encyclopedia). That’s if they even know how to read. I was amazed how many grown men in our country can’t read. And how many worked up the courage to ask for help reading or writing a letter in such a harsh environment.

Several prison book programs already exist in the US and other countries. If there’s not one near you, they’re not difficult to start. The most difficult part is building a network. Once you or your group are writing a few people you can send zines or articles printed from a computer (check restrictions as some places won’t allow this). Once you have a solid network and your name is out there, you can start sending books.

If you have friends or contacts in prison now, send them some books. It’s a strong act of solidarity and, to be honest, without books from the outside I would have gotten myself in much more trouble than I did in prison.

Agitate, Educate, Organize!

Writing to incarcerated people and sending books and other propaganda are great, but they won’t end the prison system. We need to organize.

Organizing inside prison, even from the outside, is very much like organizing any other community or workplace. We have to build connections. Fortunately, some of the work is done for us. Prisoners are especially conscious of their oppression and almost universally despise their bosses. Unfortunately, there are also some complications. Workers in prisons are afforded almost no legal protection or recourse. So keeping organizing campaigns quiet, while difficult, is critical.

Prison organizers in Georgia learned some of these lessons the hard way in 2010. [1] Inmates in several prisons, with some help from the outside, organized a work stoppage and hunger strike across at least 6 prisons that lasted for several days. They communicated and organized via mobile phones (illegal in all US prisons) and via letters sent through outside parties.

The strike was a rare moral success in an extremely demoralized prison system. The Department of Corrections took the threat so seriously they stopped all movement and work in every state-run correctional facility (there are a lot in our state) for two days. They even tried to frame the work stoppage as a riot.

The state did its best to make conditions as unbearable as possible for striking inmates. With a strict limit on outside communication and a scattered network of concerned activists on the outside, the strike fizzled out. But its effects are still felt in Georgia prisons today, mostly in the form of stricter rules on movement and a crackdown on getting outside contraband into prisons.

The state dealt harshly with the suspected organizers of the strike. Several were beaten and isolated in the state’s new “Supermax” facility. Prison guards beat one of the suspected organizers, Miguel Jackson, with a hammer. [2] This incident was captured on video and, while some of the guards involved were arrested, this is not an isolated incident. The “beat ‘em up and lock ‘em away til they heal up” attitude is common among prison guards and results in punishment only under public scrutiny.

In the wake of the Occupy movement, the plight of the suspected organizers and other inmates locked in “Supermax” isolation received fresh attention in 2012. With support from family members, activists, and former prison inmates, Miguel Jackson and eight other inmates took part in a hunger strike that gained national attention. For several days the state denied anything was happening and refused to treat the incident as a hunger strike.

At the same time, inmates in California, Virginia, and New York were also striking. None of these lasted, but some were more successful than the strikes in Georgia at forcing superficial changes. Another strike in Georgia came a few months later, but it never gained the media attention of the others and was soon forgotten.

In 2014, prisoners in Alabama went on strike with the help of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC, a part of the Industrial Workers of the World). On short notice, they garnered some support from regional activists, but the strike never gained enough strength to draw national attention. The IWOC and local groups continue working to organize incarcerated workers in Alabama and other states, but there’s little hope for any meaningful gains in the near future.

So the question remains: What can be done? Prison inmates are eager to rebel. When they see an opportunity they often take it. Riots happen more often than we hear. When they do gain attention, they’re one of the few methods inmates have of negotiating and actually achieving improved living conditions. Staughton Lynd does an excellent detailing this in his accounting of the Lucasville, Ohio prison riots (the only major US prison riot to be resolved peacefully) [3]

While riots might be effective in achieving some reforms, they’ve failed to overthrow the prison system. And they usually only erupt when conditions are so awful that inmates see no alternative.

But there are alternatives. Prison strikes are often organized with help from the outside, but when they happen there’s little in the way of resistance from outside organizers. Moral support and protests can only take us so far. We need to hit the prisons where it counts.

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Unity between rival groups of inmates was crucial to the 1993 uprising at Lucasville Prison in Ohio.

We know where these prisons are. We know how they operate. We know, for the most part, who works there and certainly who runs them. Just like workers in the free world depend on direct action to mount successful campaigns, so do incarcerated workers. We need to place pressure on the prisons and the people who work there. We need to create conditions that make it impossible for prisons to function. In some rural counties in the US the entire economy is built around prisons. Private prisons, especially for immigration detention, are a growth industry in the US and Europe. We need to make it clear that locking up, enslaving, and abusing our fellow workers is no longer acceptable. And we need to back that up with action in our workplaces and against prisons.

In most social revolutions, prisons are the first target. I often wonder why radical and revolutionaries in modern times are so hesitant to fight prisons or the justice system in our own countries. Are we disconnected? Are we reproducing the social relations and attitudes of the ruling class? Are we scared to talk to the people our taxes pay to keep locked away? If so, we have a tangled web to unfurl. But if not, what are we waiting for? The clock is ticking. The state won’t wait, so why do we?

Here’s a link to a recent interview with Siddique Hasan, one of the “Lucasville Five”:
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/we_kill_our_revolutionaries_20150222

Prison Letter Writing Resources:
New York Anarchist Black Cross (US): https://nycabc.wordpress.com/write-a-letter/ (plenty of links here)
International Anarchist Prisoners: http://www.abcf.net/international-anarchist-prisoners/
List of Inmate Birthdays: http://www.abcf.net/anarchist-birthday-brigade/
Many prison systems allow you to search online for inmate contact information. If you have no other resources in your area or want to reach out to strangers, this may be a good way. But be cautious and use a PO Box or business address.

Books for Prisoners Resources:
Prison Book Program (US): http://www.prisonbookprogram.org/
Inside Books Project (US): http://insidebooksproject.org/resource-guide/#books-to-prisoners-projects
Haven Books to Prisoners (UK): http://www.havendistribution.org.uk/
University of Roehampton Prison Outreach (UK): http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/Prison-Reading-Groups/About/

Prison Organizing Resources:
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (US, Int.): https://fundly.com/iww-incarcerated-workers-organizing-committee
Prison Activist Resource Center (US): https://www.prisonactivist.org/
Critical Resistance (Int.): http://criticalresistance.org/

Sources used in the article:

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/us/12prison.html
  2. http://sfbayview.com/2013/08/video-released-of-georgia-guards-beating-prisoners-with-hammer/
  3. Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising, Staughton Lynd, 2004, 2011