Inmates in states across the nation are on strike against the world’s largest and most racist prison system. Hopefully, they won’t be betrayed by quisling civil rights misleaders, as in 2010.
Incarcerated people and their advocates are the very definition of a resistance movement. The United States leads the world in many shameful measures, and mass incarceration is at the top of an infamous list. No other nation has as many people behind bars nor applies such overt racism in maintaining its penal system. One out of every eight incarcerated people in the world are black Americans. That is why the prison strike declared by the incarcerated and their supporters is so crucial. Their actions prove that this country lies when it claims to be an upholder of human rights.
The 2018 prison strike commemorates two anniversaries, the murder of George Jackson in San Quentin prison on August 21, 1971, and the Attica uprising and massacre which ended on September 9, 1971. Since that time the prison population has grown tremendously. In the early 1970s only 300,000 people were locked away in jails and prisons, but 50 years later that number has mushroomed to 2.2 million.
Not only have their numbers grown, but the degree of exploitation has too. Prisoners are forced to work in their institutions or as labor for corporations such as AT&T, McDonald’s, Pepsico and Walmart, to name a few. They can earn less than one dollar an hour and in states like Texas they are paid nothing at all. Inmates in California worked alongside others recently in dispatching forest fires. They were paid a mere $1 per hour, and upon being released are prevented from working as firefighters anywhere in that state, despite the valuable skills they have acquired.
The 2018 prison strike is not occurring in a vacuum. It follows similar efforts in recent years. In 2010, Georgia inmates carried out an action which lasted for days and took place in correctional institutions across the state. It was undone by brutality carried out against the organizers and by quisling civil rights leadership. The corporate media largely ignored it but the incarcerated themselves continue to rise up and make their voices heard as best they can.
Any and all claims of American democracy or civilization are hollow upon even a cursory inspection of the injustice system in this country. Most inmates have not committed violent crimes. They sold drugs or used drugs or failed to pay child support or committed a petty offense or failed to pay for traffic violations or other government fines. A rapacious system, crooked prosecutors and racists at every point in the system can turn a minor offense into a prison sentence.
Late stage capitalism has made millions of people economically redundant. There is less and less need for their labor. But when they are employed they work for low and uncertain wages without the benefits that once underpinned the system. But their labor is quite useful to states, cities and corporations who profit from their bodies like the slaveholders of old.
The fact that the massive growth in incarceration rates corresponded with the end of the liberation movement is no coincidence. The end of legal apartheid meant that some other means of oppression had to be found and the jailhouse became a convenient replacement for Jim Crow segregation. Physical control and profit are the modern means of oppression.
There is little political benefit in advocating for prisoner rights. Indeed politicians support the mass incarceration state as a means of securing votes. Black politicians are no different and can be counted on to do nothing, as Barack Obama and Eric Holder proved time and again.
The prison strike is an effort to improve living conditions and the rights of incarcerated workers. But it should be far more than that. The prison strike is a means of bringing attention to a system that is rotten and must be abolished. That will mean fighting for black community control of the police, for an end to corporate profit making on the backs of imprisoned people and for organizing against the corrupt political structure which makes so much evil doing possible.
If people behind bars can dare to rise up the least we can do is stand with them and give them a voice on the outside. Mass incarceration is proof of an undemocratic and uncivilized society. Telling the truth in this country is a rebellious act in and of itself. If we support the prison strike and support the rights of incarcerated people we are genuinely in resistance to a terrible system.
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.