By John M. Webb / Daily Kos
Amid all of the news about Cohen and Manafort this week, an important story is going under-reported. While it may be tempting to escape into some schadenfreude about our president’s little circle of criminal cronies, prison is no laughing matter. It is a dangerous place where we are literally throwing away our fellow human being beings. Tuesday was the beginning of a massive prisoners strike to protest the conditions in which they live and work.
Men and women incarcerated in prisons across the nation declare a nationwide strike in response to the riot in Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in South Carolina. Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology. These men and women are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery.
There are a million things wrong with the US prison system from overcrowding to violence to privatization. Prisoners have few rights and many are denied even the basic human ones that should never be restricted. On top of that, prisoners have very little recourse to address any of these issues. They are literally wards of the state, their care and safety are our responsibility. For this reason alone we should be very concerned about conditions in our prisons.
This country is locking up its citizens at an alarming clip. The incarceration rate in the US is the world’s highest. Out of every 100,000 people in the country, 724 are in prison. The next closest country is Russia at 581 per 100,000. There are a myriad of reasons including mandatory minimums and the War on Drugs. But the simple answer is that there are always votes to be had in this country by spouting the phrase “Tough on Crime”.
We all agree to spread this strike throughout the prisons of Ameri$$$a! From August 21st to September 9th, 2018, men and women in prisons across the nation will strike in the following manner:
1. Work Strikes: Prisoners will not report to assigned jobs. Each place of detention will determine how long its strike will last. Some of these strikes may translate into a local list of demands designed to improve conditions and reduce harm within the prison.
2. Sit-ins: in certain prisons, men and women will engage in peaceful sit-in protests.
3. Boycotts: All spending should be halted. We ask those outside the walls not to make financial judgments for those inside. Men and women on the inside will inform you if they are participating in this boycott. We support the call of Free Alabama Movement Campaign to “Redistribute the Pain” 2018 as Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, formerly known as Melvin Ray, has laid out (with the exception of refusing visitation). See these principles described here: https://redistributethepain.wordpress.com/.
On April 15, prison violence erupted at a South Carolina maximum-security prison that left seven inmates dead and many more seriously injured. It has been reported as “the nation’s deadliest prison riot in a quarter century”. Each of the seven men died from exsanguination, they literally bled to death while prison officials did nothing to end the fighting. There are also reports of bodies being piled up in the prison yard like a “macabre wood pile”.
There are conflicting reports about the source of the violence. Some say it was gang violence while others say it was a direct result of inhumane living conditions. But the cause of the violence is beside the point here. Prison officials are tasked with the safekeeping of inmates and they literally waited hours to do anything beyond reporting the incident to their superiors.
One of the biggest culprits in the events at Lee is funding. Yes, South Carolina was able to reduce its inmate population by not imprisoning people for low-level offenses. This is a good thing. But South Carolina went farther than that.
State officials also reduced mental health and other programs aimed at rehabilitation and eliminated amenities and activities that can keep prisoners busy. In some prisons, it also has meant more mixing of violent and non-violent inmates and fewer guards.
The same kinds of cuts have been happening across the nation from New Jersey to Nevada. After decades of constant growth, the nation’s prison population peaked in 2009 before decreasing 7% between 2009 and 2016.
There is no doubt in my mind that a state that took its responsibility to care for its prisoners seriously would not cut services and staff. Evidently, South Carolina is not one of those states. Although, with the incarceration rate as a nation where it is, I would be hard pressed to find one that is. This is happening across the nation, in red and blue states.
Slavery By Another Name
One of the things that comes to mind as I follow the wildfires in California this summer is the number of prisoners who are working to control them. They are being paid something like a dollar a day doing a dangerous job that would not likely be able to get once released because of their record. There is a word for this. That word is exploitation. And exploitation of labor is central to the American penal system. And then there’s the racial component, which I will leave to Ava DuVernay’s incredible documentary 13th, which I consider required viewing.
When the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865, its drafters left themselves a large, very exploitable loophole in the guise of an easily missed clause in its definition. That clause, which converts slavery from a legal business model to an equally legal method of punishment for criminals, is the subject of the Netflix documentary “13th.”
We’re told that, after the Civil War, the economy of the former Confederate States of America was decimated. Their primary source of income, slaves, were no longer obligated to line Southerners’ pockets with their blood, sweat and tears. Unless, of course, they were criminals. “Except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” reads the loophole in the law. In the first iteration of a “Southern strategy,” hundreds of newly emancipated slaves were re-enlisted into free, legal servitude courtesy of minor or trumped-up charges. The duly convicted part may have been questionable, but by no means did it need to be justifiably proven.
So begins a cycle that DuVernay examines in each of its evolving iterations; when one method of subservience-based terror falls out of favor, another takes its place. The list feels endless and includes lynching, Jim Crow, Nixon’s presidential campaign, Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s Three Strikes and mandatory sentencing laws and the current cash-for-prisoners model that generates millions for private bail and incarceration firms.
At The End of The Day, These Are Human Beings We Are Talking About
As I said before, this is more than just a “keeping the streets safe” issue. Prison is not some magical other realm where we send people that has no effect on this one. A prisoner is a ward of the state, which ultimately leaves their care and welfare in our hands. It is our responsibility because, in this country, the government is the ultimate representative of its citizens. It isn’t just some shadowy other that is doing this. it is our elected representatives, the people acting on our behalf. I will say it again, on our behalf. Prison conditions are happening on our watch and in our name.
Think about that the next time you hear someone say something about criminals “acting like animals”, an actual FB comment on Shaun King’s page, or about being “tough on crime” or even “super-predators”. At the end of the day, these are our fellow human beings. I certainly don’t want violence and exploitation happening in my name.
I applaud this strike and hope that it will get the coverage it deserves, beyond a little Fox News demagoguery and a Democracy Now piece or two. This is important. This about who we choose to be as a nation.