This features a discussion of a strike that has spread across seventeen states and into Canada over labor conditions and other injustices inside prisons.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again.
We are now into our second week of a nationwide prisoners’ strike that spread across at least seventeen states and into Canada. The strike began on August 21, the forty-seventh anniversary of the assassination of George Jackson, who a revolutionary serving time and murdered in San Quentin prison. It’s scheduled to end this Sunday, on September the 9th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica uprising and rebellion took place in the New York state prison.
There are many reasons why this fight is taking place across America. One among them, and one of the primary reasons, is the reality that slave labor conditions that exist for people serving time in our prisons, yes, slave labor conditions. They work in prison industries fighting forest fires, cleaning highways, cleaning and cooking food in the prisons and being employed by for-profit factories that have been set up in prisons and working for such well-known companies as Amazon, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and more. Prisoners are paid fifteen and twenty cents an hour in what is tantamount to legalized slave labor.
So, one of the key demands is to end this peonage and legalized enslavement and to demand rehabilitation, training and education programs to be brought back to the prisons, along with an end to solitary confinement, for the right to vote and an end to mass incarceration. These are some of the reasons, and there are many other reasons for the strike, and it’s ongoing now. Most prison systems are denying it’s happening at all. And some, like Maryland, the state from which we were broadcasting from, have put their prisons under lockdown, allegedly for a fentanyl outbreak that happened in Ohio.
Well, before we begin our conversation with our guests, let me show you a very short video taken from inside a prison, released by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, which is one of the main groups organizing this prison strike around the country and in Canada.
BENNU HANNIBAL: What we’re doing right now, this is what they don’t want to happen. They don’t want us to use these cell phones to expose the reality of what’s actually going on in this prison. They don’t want us to expose the conditions.
KEVIN STEELE: What we’re fighting for is better water. The water’s killing us in this jail. We’re fighting for better food. These are the things that are important to us. We could care less about the color of our clothes, we could care less about personal property. We’re fighting for visitation, they’re cutting down on visitation. These are the things we’re fighting for, these are the things that’s at the top of the list.
MARC STEINER: The other main organizing group for the strike is Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. And one of its key leaders and representatives on the outside is Amani Sawari, who is their spokesperson. She is also a poet, a writer, and she teaches poetry techniques and more to students incarcerated at the King County Juvenile Detention Center in Seattle and joins us now. She does this as a form of healing, reflection and protest, as well as for educating young people. Amani Sawari, welcome to The Real News, good to have you with us.
AMANI SAWARI: Thank you for having me here.
MARC STEINER: It’s great to have you with us. I’ve been looking forward to our conversation together. So, talk about where we are right now. We are two days away from the end of the strike.
AMANI SAWARI: Yes.
MARC STEINER: And so, talk about what the experience has been so far, and then we’ll jump into some of the other issues.
AMANI SAWARI: Yeah. We’re at really exciting time right now. People are really looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen after the strike. A lot of reports have been coming in from different prisons into Jailhouse Lawyers of confirmed actions that have been happening in at least thirteen of the seventeen states that pledged to strike. We know that for every single state that has sent in confirmed actions, there are many prisons in many other states who have been participating who don’t have access to direct communication to be able to reach out to Jailhouse Lawyers right now.
We know that communication is very limited. Statewide lockdowns have happened in Maryland, as you said, as well as Pennsylvania, for the “fentanyl outbreak.” But we know even in New Mexico there was a statewide lockdown that was directly attached to the strike that happened on August 20. So, I can go through some of the prisons that have confirmed action throughout the country.
MARC STEINER: Let’s talk about a few of those. I’m curious, when you say communications that couldn’t come out of prisons, so I’m curious how that works and what that means. I mean, clearly in some institutions, men and women have been able to get their message outside while others can’t. What is that dynamic? I think it’d be interesting to find that out.
AMANI SAWARI: Yeah. So, it just depends. Some prisons are allowing prisoners to use JPay, and really JPay is heavily monitored. It’s their paid emailing system. So, if you even mention the word strike, the message probably won’t get through the mail room on either side. Also, written letters. So, some strikers have been retaliated against and not being allowed to write outside or receive outside communication. This has happened with Comrade Malik in Texas as well as David Eastly in Toledo’s correctional institution in Ohio.
So, people who have been confirmed strikers, who have said they’re hunger striking, at that point they’re not even allowed to send out letters or get letters and their mail is heavily censored. So,that’s what I mean by communications being really limited or restricted for people who have been confirmed strikers. But for those who have been able to get letters out by sending them to other prisoners and having those prisoners send out their mail, we’ve been able to get those reports from them.
So, in California, in New Folsom Prison we have hunger striking that started by Roberto Garcia. He was the one who did post the video that was shared on Twitter and Reddit, of him hunger striking, because there were reporters calling into that prison asking if striking was happening there. And officials were dismissing strike action, saying that there was nothing happening, that lockdowns were not related to the strike. So, Roberto Garcia actually posted a video of him saying that he is participating in the hunger strike, as he was denying food for that day when it was being served to him. So, that’s another way that strikers have been able to directly communicate to the outside that they are participating in the strike.
In addition to that, the California State Prison in Lancaster has a group that is hunger striking. And those are two confirmed reports out of California. In Florida, we’ve got at least five prisons that are participating through strikes and boycotts. And boycotts one of the hardest things that we can keep a tally on, because prisoners are boycotting commissary, they’re boycotting telephone calls with Global Tel Link and other telephone companies that charge them to communicate with the outside, sometimes as much as three dollars and fifty cents for fifteen minutes on the phone, when a lot of the times they don’t make over a dollar for eight hours of work.
MARC STEINER: They’re Being charged three dollars and fifty cents every minutes for a phone call?
AMANI SAWARI: For fifteen minutes, yeah, for a phone call.
MARC STEINER: And they’re only making twenty cents per hour at these prison jobs.
AMANI SAWARI: Exactly. And this is the exact definition of prison slavery. Prisoners aren’t able to support themselves on the inside. There are costs that prisoners have for be on incarcerated and on the inside. They have to pay for phone calls, they have to pay to send out messages and emails, they have to pay for commissary food, for hygiene products, for toothpaste, for hair products. And these are costs that they have, of clothes, sanitary items. Women have to pay for their toiletries, things like this. They’re not given every single thing that they would need as a human being to live, so they have to pay for those things.
And they’re not adequately paid even for a small percentage of the things that they would have to pay for. And the state knows that every single dollar that they’re being given as a salary is going right back, immediately. They have no way of supporting themselves on the inside. And so, that’s what they’re demanding to be paid prevailing wages. They want to be able to support themselves at the very least while they’re incarcerated.
MARC STEINER: So, let’s talk a bit about that, about the demands that are being made here by people who are serving time in this country and what they are. And also, let me start here, though. I think there are some people watching this broadcast that may say, “Look. These men and women broke the law, they’re doing time, and you’re asking me to say I should support them in wanting more money when they should just be paying for their time because they committed a crime?” Let’s talk for just a minute, just that kind of pragmatic philosophical view, how you respond to that when people say that.
AMANI SAWARI: So speak to that specifically, I’d say yes, they’re serving time, they’ve been convicted of a crime. Serving time, does that mean that they are supposed to be living in inhumane conditions? Does that mean they’re supposed to be living in super hot cells, concrete cell blocks where they can barely breathe because they don’t have the oxygen that they would need? Are they supposed to be served food that’s inedible? Are they supposed to not have access to the hygiene products that they would need? Are they supposed to be drinking water that’s not meant for human consumption? Are they supposed to be living in these inhumane conditions while they’re serving time?
Yes, they’re serving their time. They are putting their life on pause. They are giving back to society by not participating in society, since that’s the way that we do incarceration. But their families are also serving time with it. So, because of this, their families, who are most of which are in impoverished communities, are sending in hundreds of dollars to this system to support their loved ones. Shouldn’t their loved ones be practicing budgeting and managing finances by earning the amounts and salaries that they should earn for the work that they’re doing, which is valuable work?
Companies are making billions of dollars off of the work and have made billions of dollars off of the work that incarcerated people are doing. So, why can’t those people be paid a valuable wage for the work that they’re doing so that they can support themselves at the very least? I understand that they’re serving time, that they’ve committed crimes. But we can’t use criminal as a label to allow us to take away people’s human rights of the right to be fed food that’s nutritious, the right to be in a comfortable environment, not luxurious, but comfortable, an environment where they feel safe, safe from being hurt, harmed, sexually abused, mentally abused, physically abused.
Fifteen people died in Mississippi. Was that just for being incarcerated? No. The conditions are so bad in our prisons in this country that people die every other day, left and right, and prisoners are afraid, they fear for their lives. They shouldn’t be living in constant fear because of the violent environment that they’re in and because of the unlivable working and living conditions that they’re forced to be in. They should feel safe, they should feel protected, and their families should not be drained of hundreds of dollars every month just to support them, when prisoners are making that effort to try to support themselves by getting jobs on the inside.
MARC STEINER: I think you answered that question adequately, and I wanted to hear that answer, that it was important people understand the context here. Let’s talk about a bit also about the demands being made. Part of it has to do with the 13th Amendment, which is which in many ways, the way many people interpret it, it says that legalized slavery can take place inside of oor penal institutions. People want that revoked and want that changed. But the whole list of demands that people are pushing around this across the country. How did you come to those, and give us a sense of what the what the content is?
AMANI SAWARI: Yes. So, Jailhouse Lawyers crafted these demands. They actually started off with thirty-five demands and they crafted them down to ten, just so that it could be a nice, distinct, easy to remember number. And the reason why prison slavery is such a high demand is because slavery was written into our Constitution by the 13th Amendment. It’s not mentioned prior to this amendment being put in and saying slavery has a place in our country and its place is in our penal system. And prisoners and their families want that to be abolished so that slavery has no place in this country.
Slavery has had a very disgusting and abusive history in this country and there’s absolutely no way that our government should allow it to persist in any form, because it carries so many connotations with it, such as abuse, sexual, physical, emotional, mental, in so many ways. And we can see this happening in our criminal justice system. But in addition to the prison slavery demand, which is demand number two, there are ten other demands, which hit on inhumane conditions, making conditions better for prisoners to live in, rescinding sending the Prison Litigation Reform Act, that’s demand number three.
And the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act really blocks prisoners from being able to have their human rights protected by our courts. Now, they had to have their grievances addressed internally. And a lot of the time, when there is a violation to their rights, the people who were involved in that violation are the same people who are conducting those investigations. So, this is an unjust system. There should be an overarching body that is monitoring the way that prisons are operating. And the prisons shouldn’t be responsible for monitoring themselves.
Our rescinding of the Truth and Sentencing Act is demand number four, and that demand wants Good Time to be enacted in all states across the board. Prisoners who are making an effort to correct their behavior through taking classes, through being a part of programs, through maintaining a job and being committed and diligent to the things that they’ve signed up for should be rewarded for that. And we shouldn’t want to see corrections and Rehabilitation be rewarded in our criminal justice system and in our corrections department. Also, and- sorry?
MARC STEINER: No, go ahead, finish what you were saying. Finish that thought, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
AMANI SAWARI: Yeah, in our criminal justice department, and an immediate end to racial overcharging and over sentencing and parole denials for black and brown humans is demand number five.
MARC STEINER: So, we’re going to play this other short clip that’s taken from demonstrations and things going on outside and come back to conclude our conversation here with a Amani Sawari as we wind down with the prisoners’ strike here in the United States and in Canada, I might add.
SPEAKER: I would like to highlight that this prison strike was organized by incarcerated people. The prison system is used to enrich billionaires and keep black people and working class depressed. Folks on the inside, especially the organizers, are being stripped of all types of rights. They’re not able to bathe, a lot of them are put in solitary confinement, get all their personal possessions taken. People risk so fucking much to be doing this on the inside, so we’ve really got to be out here vocal as fuck about this, and that it is our duty on the outside to project their voices as much as fucking possible, right?
MARC STEINER: And as you say, that was taking place in Minneapolis for the fireworks. And Amani, I want to come back in and ask this final question. I’m very curious about a couple of things. One has to do with the last prisoners’ strike that took place. There was a lot of retaliation against the men and women who actually led those strikes. So, A, what is happening now to the men and women who are leading this strike inside and what comes after the strike is over on Sunday?
AMANI SAWARI: The same. The same type of retaliation is happening to the leaders on the inside. As I mentioned, Comrade Malik was moved into solitary confinement. He’s handcuffed 24/7, he’s not allowed to take showers, he’s not given clean clothes. The same case for Jason Walker, also moved into solitary confinement. Both of them are in Texas. Jason Walker actually wrote an article about prison conditions in Texas and has been retaliated against for his leadership in the prison strike. They are trying to find the Jailhouse Lawyers and put them into solitary confinement as well.
So, a lot of prisoners, even on a group level where there have been lockdowns, like in New Mexico. Prisoners in New Mexico were all placed on lockdown and have been suffering from daily strip searches in Lee County’s institution in New Mexico. So, prisoners have been suffering from retaliation. Being moved into solitary confinement is one of the first things, just to kind of stop them from spreading awareness about the strike, and then also just making conditions really difficult for them in there by not allowing them to purchase items that they need, like towels, toiletries, commissary items. They’re not allowed to write to the outside.
So, they’re really just trying to cut them off and sort of pick the leaders out one by one so that these types of demonstrations can’t happen again. But as we’ve seen in 2016, the fact that retaliation occurs fuels inmates wanting to strike in the future. So, there’s no doubt in my mind that the strike will happen again next year. And Jailhouse Lawyers has already communicated back to me as well.
MARC STEINER: So, between this year and next what what are the plans and ideas to take place to try to change the situation of incarceration in America? What are you planning on doing between your group, Jailhouse Lawyers, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. What comes next?
AMANI SAWARI: So, Jailhouse Lawyers is actually putting together a human rights coalition which will be released on Sunday, the day that the strike officially ends. So, everyone who’s been supporting the strike and in solidarity with the strike, all of the hundreds of organizations that have signed on to be in support of the strike, will all be transformed into this coalition that will be committed to seeing each of the ten demands fulfilled in our country, beginning with some of the policy changes that need to happen on a political levell, like rescinding of the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Truth in Sentencing Act and policies and acts like these that sort of block prisoners from being able to benefit from rehabilitation and have access to having their rights protected by the courts.
So, a coalition is being formed right now. So, if anyone is interested in being a part of that, please visit sawarimi.org and sign up to be on that coalition so that you can receive updates. We’re going to be encouraging people to write their legislators and let them know, “Look, this strike just happened, these are what prisoners demands are, we want to know what your position is on these demands so that we can pick the right politicians to be representing our prisoners.” Because they need representation in our courts and in our judicial system.
MARC STEINER: Well, we here at The Real News will continue covering this, with Eddie Conway, Robbing the Bars as part of this organization here, to keep pushing the idea that we have to change the nature of our mass incarceration and change and change the nature of prisons in our country. We’ll continue to work with the Jailhouse Lawyers and having people like Amani Sawari on with us so we can continue this conversation with all of you about what we can do to change this horrendous prospect for what’s going on in our country.
And Amani, thank you so much. It’s been great to have you with us.
AMANI SAWARI: Thank you, I really appreciate it and so do Jailhouse Lawyers.
MARC STEINER: Thank you for your work.
And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. We will stay on top of this for all of us. Take care.