Above the din of disturbing news – that discordant banging you’re hearing, steadily getting louder and louder, that you can no longer ignore – that’s the drumbeat of the unfree.
Dehumanized by the labels “prisoner,” “inmate,” and “convict,” even reduced to serial numbers like Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables,” these men and women are, just like you and me, or any mortal – irrespective of flaws, frailties, even felonious acts and misdemeanors – endowed with the right to be treated with dignity, decency, and respect.
Advancing 10 specific demands as a rallying cry in prisons nationwide, these brave incarcerated souls are striking by: not eating, refusing to do prison work, engaging in sit-ins, and taking part in myriad other acts of nonviolent resistance that could, nonetheless – given the carceral, contentious environment they’re taking place in – quickly trigger violence (even reprisals, including the nefarious, all-too-frequent imposition of solitary confinement).
So what can you do? At a minimum, read the list of demands; they’re not long and considerable thought and effort went into crafting them. Since the very act of striking places the safety of the strikers in greater jeopardy, it’s the least you, as a civic-minded, compassionate citizen, can do. The complete list is below:
1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
2. 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.
3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole.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.
5. 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.
6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting black and brown humans.
7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all U.S. states and territories.
10. 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!
Once informed, please support and amplify these reasonable demands for prison reform. As conscientious, justice-loving Americans, we must, all of us, collectively join the call to implement this list of humble reforms through the power of our pocketbooks, our votes, our voices, and perhaps most importantly, our resolve.
All of us have a part to play in pressuring legislators, correctional officials, and all the many state and federal bureaucrats with clout, to end unseemly, unsatisfactory “slave labor” practices behind bars; these are grossly unfair regulations which pay nothing (or next to nothing) for work done in prison – even indisputably backbreaking, life-threatening, heroic work.
We must demand an end to the insidious institutional racism that keeps so many of our brothers and sisters, disproportionately black and brown-skinned, languishing behind bars – unfairly, unproductively, disconsolately, for far, far too long. In the purported “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” we have to end our horribly destructive, dysfunctional reliance on physically and psychologically ripping our people apart from their friends, family, and communities – often setting them up to return to prison again, later, in a maddening, self-perpetuating, defeating cycle, to serve even harsher, more punitive sentences. (Federal judge Raymond J. Dearie, formerly the United States Attorney in Brooklyn, once aptly lamented: “Why this love affair in this country with lengthy incarceration, to our great embarrassment as a civilized nation?”)
No longer can we tolerate the pervasive rehabilitative deprivations and despicably inhumane living conditions that define our penal system. As a Norwegian prison “governor” and clinical psychologist eloquently and pragmatically cautioned in a 2014 piece exploring “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful”: “In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”
We must follow the sage advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in demanding an end to racial discrimination in 1963, famously articulated the “fierce urgency of now”; for it is that same unrelenting, unquelled urgency that no less characterizes our nation’s long-lagging need for meaningful, far-reaching prison reform.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Reverend King poignantly observed that “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men [and women] are no longer willing to be plunged in the abyss of despair.” It is this dark and ominous feeling that currently dominates morale inside America’s prisons today; danger is the foreseeable consequence.
Outside of our too numerous prisons, with their too crowded confines, the need for people with integrity to speak up and to act out on behalf of achieving prison reform is every bit as pressing. For as Dr. King elegantly concluded in his book “Why we can’t wait”: “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man, it tolls for you, for me, for all of us.”
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq