Harsh Conditions, Violent Repression: Stoking the Flame of the 2018 Prison Strike

Prisons, USA – An “improvement to the conditions of prisons” is part of the first of ten demands of the nationwide 2018 Prison Strike, which comes to a symbolic end on September 9. That day is the 47th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, the historic prisoner rebellion that was violently quashed by the state of New York’s forces. The uprising was over prison conditions, the main determinant of quality of life for inmates inside prison walls across the United States. For decades inmates across the United States speaking up, or organizing, for better conditions have faced multiple forms of retaliation by prison officials, and in 2018, not much has changed.

Unicorn Riot's 2018 Prison Strike Coverage:

Immediate improvement to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned persons.” – First Demand of 2018 Prison Strike

Conditions vary from prison to prison, state to state, and budget to budget. Issues and needs for prisoners are plenty. Getting access to the proper resources on the inside is very difficult and those that speak out are often subjected to loss of programming, torture, beatings, solitary confinement, and more.

Many of the simplest needs, like drinking water, are often the most overlooked. Drinking water in Massachusetts Norfolk Prison has elevated levels of the mineral manganese, which can cause neurological disorders, and has been stinky and dark looking for years.

Bottled water is available at Norfolk for $0.65 for a 16 oz. bottle, which is about one-third of the average prisoner’s daily wage. Yet, dogs being trained at Norfolk Prison to become service animals for people with disabilities, drank the bottled water.

Dogs are provided bottled water, but the human inmates are not … This creates … a strong distrust of the [prison] administrators’ stance on any and all water/health related issues.” – Norfolk Inmate Council

This year, Norfolk inmate Wayland Coleman did a hunger strike to continue to bring awareness to the unhealthy water. Last year, Coleman was placed in solitary confinement for a month in retaliation for sending a critical report about the water to the Boston Globe.

Organizations like Deeper Than Water, prisoners, and other advocates, have been struggling for years to get clean drinking water in Norfolk Prison. The Department of Environmental Protection has threatened the Department of Corrections with fines with they do not fix the water issue. It is unclear when the new water system will be completed.

In Boston, Massachusetts, at a noise demo in solidarity with the 2018 Prison Strike on August 23, speeches were made bringing forth issues and they specifically discussed the water quality issue.

Water quality is not only deficient in Norfolk Prison. In a video smuggled out of prison (below), said to be from Ridgeland Correctional Institution in South Carolina (Ridgeland-SCDC), brown water is seen coming out of the sink and toilet.

They’re trying to kill us, can’t even get clean water“. – Inmate in Ridgeland-SCDC

Inmates in the video can be heard debating whether it’s “shit water” or a rust from a broken pipe. “We can’t live like this man“, inmates said on the video that they hadn’t had clean water for two weeks.

Obviously clean drinking water and staffing shortages are not the only issues that lead prisoners to hardships, nor are the issues only relegated to the few prisons mentioned above. Prisons in the United States often are lacking funding, are short staffed, and have notoriously harsh conditions. Staffing and budgets often affect how much programs prisoners are allowed to be involved in.

Our latest report on the Prison Strike, spotlit what inmates in a Minnesota prison called a “humanitarian crisis” that has unfolded recently. Prisoners inside MCF-Stillwater have had clothes “mildewed” after over a month on lockdown in response to a prison guard being killed on July 18, 2018.

Meanwhile, prisoners at Crossroads Correctional Center (CRCC) in Missouri, had been on lockdown since mid-May 2018 up until this Monday, September 3. The almost four-month-long lockdown came after an uprising took place in response to living conditions and staffing shortages that led to a loss of recreational time and other programming.

We only wanted them to allow rehabilitation programs and back recreation time” – Tiny G, inmate at Crossroads

The uprising started when hundreds of inmates refused to go back to their cells. Other inmates then hot-wired forklifts to enter a manufacturing facility, damaging the equipment as many others took part in damaging prison property.

This, in turn, brought on various forms of repression by prison officials. Prisoners were transferred, placed on an extended lockdown, denied medical care, visitation, law library, visitation, and have been fed boxed meals in their cells since the lockdown started.

That repression has pushed family members of prisoners and lawyers into forming a class action lawsuit against the prison for what lawyers say are violations of the prisoner’s civil rights and are subduing the inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.

This week, after the lifting of the lockdown, family members of Crossroads inmates are now able to see their loved ones and the prisoners are receiving hot meals again.

Reactions to harsh conditions from prisoners have varied from organizing to sit-ins to what transpired during the violent, deadly riots like in South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Facility in April 2018, which was an important prompting factor in this year’s Prison Strike. In turn, repression from prison officials against prisoners making any kind of stand is commonplace.

As for the 2018 Prison Strike, repression against prisoners speaking on, or organizing for the strike, has been happening since the summer. An organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), one of the main groups of incarcerated people that have organized the Prison Strike, told journalist Raven Rakia, that prison officials are on a “all-out manhunt” for them.

Right now, we know there’s an all-out manhunt for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leaders … They want to take our heads off. We’re not going to give them our heads. We’re not gonna let them destroy our movement. It’s not going to happen.” – Anonymous organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak

An organizer with JLS stated there are already reports of repression against inmates and of “assaults of prisoners” who have been found to be promoting the strike or other forms of resistance.

Prisons are being turned upside down by the goons. Leading prisoners suspected of promoting strikes or any forms of resistance are being locked down, having mail slowed or rejected, property taken, and we have noted a few assaults on prisoners by pigs.” – Anonymous organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak

On July 27, 2018, in the lead up to the 2018 Prison Strike, Siddique Abdullah Hasan was placed on lockdown in a Ohio prison and is currently facing five charges for receiving mail about the prison strike, which included the zine Fire Inside, as well as discussing the strike during phone calls.

Hasan, a political prisoner on death row from his role in the 1993 Lucasville Uprising and an organizer with the Free Ohio Movement, has now been barred for making phone calls for a full year.

Hasan went on hunger strike immediately after being placed on lockdown and prison officials created a “security barrier and sandbags outside his cell door“. Updates from inside are hard to attain, but the latest update of Hasan was from August 8 and it said that eleven days into his hunger strike, Hasan was still protesting the serious charges levied against him for simply speaking on the Prison Strike.

In Texas, writing the words, “on August 21st we rise”, got Keith ‘Malik’ Washington, placed in a “Level 3 punitive torture wing” in a prison called the McConnell Unit this summer.

Washington is the co-founder of End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement and Deputy Chairman of the prison chapter of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP-PC). NABPP-PC co-founder, Kevin Rashid Johnson, has been in and out of solitary confinement and is now on death row in a Virginia prison out of retaliation from prison officials, although never being sentenced to death.

Washington released a statement spotlighting some of the recent repression to him and others in prisons across the U.S. Washington called out to “all free-world activists, Black Panthers, freedom fighters, anarchists, socialists, communists, anti-fascists and prison abolitionists” to stand up for prisoners and workers rights, form a supportive “national response team“, and to join IWOC and the IWW.

Kinetik Justice already made the call for a National Response Team in order to help those who fall victim to fascist retaliation tactics! Can y’all hear me now?” – Keith ‘Malik’ Washington, inmate in Texas’ McConnell Unit

A popular figure from the historic 2016 Prison Strike (PDF) was Kinetik Justice Amun, or Robert Earl Council, co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement. Kinetik, an inmate organizer was featured in many videos and did many interviews before and during the strike, advocating and speaking on the demands of the prisoners.

In response to his years of activism and organizing behind bars, he was made to endure lengthy stretches of solitary confinement, being assaulted by guards, several transfers, and more. After years of retaliation against him, Kinetic was reportedly set to be released from segregation and placed into the general population in the summer of 2018.

Because of the forced repression on inmates, many of the organizers, including those from JLS, choose to give fake names or stay anonymous when speaking with the press or outside world.

After the historic 2010 peaceful prison strike across several Georgia prisons, dozens of participants faced violent retaliation by prison officials and guards, leaving some permanently disabled from the beatings.

Prisoners were beaten by “hammer-like” weapons by prison guards, ultimately leading to eight corrections officials being sentenced for crimes involving beating the inmates and covering it up.

Prisoners had nine demands, many similar to the ten demands of the 2018 Prison Strike: a living wage for work, educational opportunities, decent health care, an end to cruel and unusual punishments, decent living conditions, nutritional meals, vocational and self-improvement opportunities, access to families, and just parole decisions.

It’s these bitter realities that have organizers fearful of retribution. Those handful of prisoners written above don’t even begin to scratch the surface to the repression that thousands among thousands face on a daily basis.

An inmate with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said that when the 2018 Prison Strike is over and the information starts coming from other prisons, they fear that from the repression forced onto inmates from prison officials, there will “be a number of personal horror stories shared.”

Continue to follow Unicorn Riot for a roundup of the 2018 Prison Strike and follow the hashtags #PrisonStrike2018 and #PrisonStrike, among others for updates on the nationwide Prison Strike.

Cover image via Bob Jagendorf

On the first day of the 2018 Prison Strike, about 50 people shot fireworks off the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in Minneapolis while incarcerated youth looked down at the banners reading “End Prison Slavery“, “Fire to the Prisons“, and “Stillwater to Attica, Support Rebel Prisoners” (cover image). The speaker featured in the video spoke explicitly about the demands “To recognize the humanity of people within the prison system.

Read our first three specials on the 2018 Prison Strike:

Earlier this year, Unicorn Riot dropped a video special from the Northern Spark Art Festival in Minneapolis spotlighting one of the exhibits bringing light to banned books in U.S. prisons. In 2017 we released an in-depth report on fighting for alternatives to youth incarceration in Minnesota.

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