‘Treated as animals’: US prisoners gear up for nationwide strike

An uprising in South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Facility in April ended with seven people dead. 

The uprising was sparked by gang-related tensions, which were fuelled by poor living conditions and prolonged due to under-staffing. At the time, a witness told the Associated Press that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other”. 

Now, four months on, prisoners in 17 US states are slated to launch a weeks-long strike on Tuesday in response to the deadly uprising. 

It is unclear in which states and facilities the strikes will take place. 

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a prisoner support group that endorsed Tuesday’s strike, said in a press release that the decision to launch the upcoming strike was taken after the deaths in South Carolina. 

“Seven comrades lost their lives in 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,” that statement read. 

The wide-reaching strike will include commissary boycotts, protests, sit-ins and work stoppages, among other forms of direct action – and could be larger than a historic prison strike that gripped detention facilities across the country in 2016. 

Launched on September 9, the anniversary of the deadly 1971 Attica prison, the 2016 strike was one of the largest prison actions in US history, drawing the participation of an estimated 24,000 prisoners in 20 facilities across two dozen states.

Kevin Steele, a 25-year-old who was released in January after spending eight years behind bars in several facilities in New York state, said peaceful protests inside prisons often fail to garner attention among the general public. 

“There are a lot of peaceful protests that go unspoken outside the prison walls,” said Steele, who is now the spokesperson for the New York chapter of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a group that has endorsed the upcoming strike.

“That’s something a lot of people out here don’t expect because of the stigma that incarcerated people are violent,” he added.

‘Shouldn’t be treated as animals’ 

At the time of publication, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment, though some inmates in federal facilities are expected to participate in Tuesday’s strike. 

The National Lawyers Guild, the New York-based Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, several chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, and other advocacy groups have also endorsed the strike.

In a press released posted on Twitter, the JLS said: “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue.” 

The demands of the strikers, who hope to carry on until September 9, include improving living conditions, reinstating their voting rights, reforming laws that lead to the disproportionate incarceration of people of colour and an end to life imprisonment without parole, among others.

The strikers also call for an end to “prison slavery”, demanding compensation equal to the normal wages outside the prisons in the states where they are located.

Nearly 2.3 million people are held in federal facilities, state prisons, local jails, juvenile correctional facilities, immigrant detention centres and other facilities across the country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) nonprofit group.

According to an April 2017 PPI report, prisoners who work in state-owned industries earn between $0.33 and $1.41 per hour on average, while those employed in regular jobs earn between $0.14 and $0.63 an hour. 

Prisoner work assignments can include anything from custodial and grounds keeping at a prison facility to work-release programmes for public or nonprofit agencies, according to PPI. 

Steele hopes Tuesday’s protests could contribute to far-reaching change in the country’s judicial system as well as public perception of incarcerated people.

“The message that they are trying to send out is that they are human beings, that they also have human rights, too, and they shouldn’t be treated as animals,” he said.

“They just want a voice an opportunity to be treated equally as everyone else is.”

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