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PLN editor quoted on national prison strike

New York Times, Aug. 26, 2018.

Prison Strike Organizers Aim to Improve Conditions and Pay

The inmates at North Carolina’s Hyde Correctional Institution hung three banners from the prison fence last week as supporters gathered outside. One sign asked for better food; another requested parole; the third said, “In solidarity.”

The protest came in support of a nationwide prisoner strike to call attention to the low inmate wages, decrepit facilities and harsh sentences that organizers say plague prison populations across the country. Though it is unclear how widespread such demonstrations have been, activists said they had shown a new ability to reach inmates across state lines at a time when prison unrest and in-custody deaths are frequently in the news.

“Prisoners aren’t oblivious to their reality,” said Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and a longtime critic of prison conditions. “They see people dying around them. They see the financial exploitation. They see the injustice.”

Inmate protests have been happening for generations, but it is only in the last few years that organizers have had success coordinating from penitentiary to penitentiary and state to state. In 2010, Georgia inmates used contraband cellphones to coordinate protests across at least six prisons. And in 2016, prisoners in several states stopped reporting for work to protest their wages.

Much of the recent activism has focused on inmate pay, which can range from nothing at all in states like South Carolina and Texas to, at best, a few dollars for a day of hard labor in other places. Prisoners frequently refer to it as “slave labor,” and organizers of this year’s strike have called for inmates to be paid the prevailing wage for the cleaning, cooking and other work they perform behind bars.

“People are starting to realize how disgusting it is how human beings can be paid pennies,” said Amani Sawari, a spokeswoman for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group organizing the strike.

The current pay leaves many prisoners struggling to afford phone calls to family members or toothpaste and deodorant from the commissary, experts said. Even after years of hard work inside, they frequently have little or nothing saved to help with rent or other necessities when they are released.

“If they were being paid — even something less than minimum wage, but some reasonable amount of money — they could get out and have at least a little bit of money to get started again,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who once served as a court-appointed monitor of that state’s prison system.

Ms. Sawari said inmates in several states planned to participate in the strike, which started last week and is scheduled to run through Sept. 9. In addition to increased pay and better living conditions, strikers were calling for changes to sentencing laws and expanded access to rehabilitation and educational opportunities for inmates, among other requests.

Ms. Sawari’s group has suggested that inmates could stop reporting for work, stop eating or perform subtler protests, such as no longer buying supplies from the prison commissary. She said word of the protests has spread through the news media, word of mouth and outreach to different prisons.

“Prisoners have heard on the radio, they’ve seen on TV,” said Ms. Sawari, whose group has also supported demonstrations in recent days outside of prisons. “We know that this is widespread. We just don’t know what specific actions and what specific prisoners.”

Prison officials in several states downplayed the impact of the protests and, in many cases, denied that they were occurring.

Knowing what is happening in prisons in real time is notoriously difficult. When strikes played out across the country in 2016, activists said it often took weeks or months to fully understand the scope of the protests. Members of the public cannot witness what is going on inside a prison, inmates are limited in their ability to relay their accounts and corrections departments have little incentive to publicize discord.

In California last week, activists circulated video that appeared to show an inmate turning down a burrito and saying he was on a hunger strike. State officials said they could not confirm that the footage was real.

“I’m aware of the video but I have no way of identifying the inmate in the video or verifying where it was recorded,” Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an email. “I can tell you we have had no reported incidents or activities from inmates related to the national prison strike.”

Activists said detainees at a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Washington State were on a hunger strike. A department spokeswoman, Lori K. Haley, said Sunday that those were “false rumors.”

Officials in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New York and South Carolina, where protest activity had either been reported or rumored, all denied on Sunday that anything was amiss at their facilities. Officials in Ohio, New Mexico and at the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to requests for comment.

“There are no strikes occurring in Georgia,” wrote Joan Heath, a corrections spokeswoman there, in a message that was typical of the other states. “We have been, and will continue to monitor the situation.”

Advocates working on behalf of inmates say there is an urgency in this year’s strike, which they are convinced is gaining momentum despite the lack of corroboration. In April, seven inmates died in a riot in a South Carolina prison, and already in August, at least 10 Mississippi inmates have died, most in cases that officials believe were from natural causes.

By inmates stopping work and calling attention to the problems, their supporters said, there is a hope that conditions might eventually improve.

“Do we expect that, hey, there’s a prison strike and all of a sudden tomorrow prisoners are going to be paid the minimum wage and get adequate health care?” asked Mr. Wright, of the Human Rights Defense Center. “Probably not,” he said, “but it’s a process.”


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