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Amid debate on prison reform, rising voices from the inside

Why We Wrote This

When it comes to conditions inside prisons, should prisoners have a voice? That's one of the questions raised by a three-week strike by inmates in more than a dozen states.

Sean Rayford/AP
A guard tower stands above the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Bishopville, S.C., in April after seven inmates were killed amid fighting among prisoners. Prisoners in more than a dozen states launched a three-week strike in response to the deadly riot.

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Two prison riots, decades apart, inspired a multistate strike by prisoners seeking more humane living conditions. The strike was timed to end on the anniversary of Attica and was sparked by a riot this year in South Carolina in which seven people died and dozens were injured. “We just want everybody to remember the horrific conditions that brought these deaths about,” an inmate named Eddie told reporters on a press call Sept. 1. Actions ranged from hunger strikes to workplace stoppages and commissary boycotts. Criminal justice reforms in recent years have focused on reducing prison populations. The actual conditions inside prisons have been largely overlooked, experts and advocates say. About 800,000 prisoners are put to work daily, doing everything from cleaning for as little as 4 cents an hour in Louisiana to volunteering to fight wildfires in California for $1 an hour, plus $2 a day. “A number of states have done things to improve their justice system … but that doesn’t really address the conditions of confinement, medical care, phone calls, visitations for prisoners,” says Alex Friedman of the Human Rights Center. “Things prisoners have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, there hasn’t been a lot of mobilization on those issues.”

Debate over criminal justice reform in the United States in recent years has tackled everything from the death penalty to bail reform to restoring voting rights after a prisoner has completed their sentence. But the debate has largely sidestepped the actual living conditions inside American prisons.

Over the past three weeks, prisoners in more than a dozen states have tried to change that.

  • Hunger strikes took place from California, Washington, and Texas. On Aug. 21 a video began circulating of an inmate in California saying he was on hunger strike. An advocacy group identified the inmate as Heriberto Garcia, incarcerated at Folsom State Prison in California, and said last week his strike “continues.” At a prison in Texas, two prisoners undertook a hunger strike to express solidarity with prisoners across the US demanding an end to what they call state-sponsored slavery. “I feel great. But very hungry!” one told prison reform advocates.
  • 200 immigrants at a detention center in Tacoma, Wash., reportedly took part in solidarity with the prisoners.
  • Some 100 prisoners at Hyde Correctional Institute in Fairfield, N.C., assembled in the prison's yard carrying signs reading “Parole,” “Better Food,” and “In solidarity,” according to the Guardian.

Two separate prison uprisings, decades apart, inspired the strike: 1971’s Attica prison rebellion, in which more than 1,000 prisoners took over the New York prison demanding more humane living conditions; and a deadly riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this year, which sparked inmates’ decision to take political action this summer.

The national strike comes on the heels of a particularly tense period in US prisons, which experts say are more restive now than any time since the 1980s. It also comes as President Trump and Senate Republicans have decided to postpone prison reform legislation until after the midterms. While support for criminal justice reform more generally has been gaining momentum, particularly on the right, conditions inside prisons themselves are mostly a mystery to the general public. Efforts by inmates in the past to draw attention to them have seen mixed success. But prisoner advocates and inmates say that, if the US wants to finally remove a decades-old strain of brutality from its prison system, their voices need to be part of the debate. 

“A number of states have done things to improve their justice system, mostly along the lines of trying to reduce prison populations, sentencing reforms, early releases, things of that nature, but that doesn’t really address the conditions of confinement, medical care, phone calls, visitations for prisoners,” says Alex Friedmann of the Human Rights Defense Center. “Things prisoners have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, there hasn’t been a lot of mobilization on those issues.”

US prison officials largely downplayed the strike. “We’ve been aware of all these outside agitating groups that have been trying to instigate our prisoners,” Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, told Mother Jones. “Thankfully they haven't listened.”

Prisoners, too, largely remained quiet about their efforts to the outside world, concerned about reprisals.

“I don’t think that prisoners know what a publicity stunt really is,” a prisoner named “Eddie” said in a conference call with reporters Sept. 1, underscoring that striking prisoners often face sanctions. “We just don’t really have time for games. You know, everything we do has been real.”

Organizers say protesters numbered between the dozens to hundreds in 14 states, many of them in the South, as well as Nova Scotia, Canada. Actions included hunger strikes, the hanging of protest signs in cell blocks, commissary boycotts, and work stoppages. Among their 10 demands, organizers called for improvements to poor living conditions; wages for prison labor, which can be less than $1 an hour; and the restoration of voting rights.

“The most recent demands are important because they are so pointedly calling attention to the injustice of very specific policies in this country that have caused prisons to become so overcrowded and brutal,” says Heather Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”

Evidence of a broader shift?

Criminal justice reforms in recent years have focused on reducing prison populations, primarily focusing on minimizing sentence lengths and curbing recidivism. The actual conditions inside prisons have been largely overlooked, experts and advocates say. In Texas, for example – a state that has spent the past decade reforming its system – prison officials spent more money fighting a lawsuit to install air conditioning in one prison than it would have cost to install in the first place. (The state has also slashed phone call rates in its prisons, it should be noted.)

In that way, the prison strike, experts say, is a part of a broader bid to shift standards of punishment in the US.

“The standard theory of riots and disturbance is that misery breeds revolt,” writes Purdue University sociologist Bert Useem, co-author of “Prison State,” in an email. “This theory does not do well when judged by the historical record. The current mobilization by inmates and their allies ... should not be taken as a sign that things are ‘bad’ behind bars. They are raising the bar for what inmates see as fair. And, naturally, prisons are failing this rising standard.”

AP/File
Inmates of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, N.Y., Sept. 10, 1971. Forty-three people died in the largest prison uprising in US history.

The US incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other country, according to the Sentencing Project: 670 people per 100,000 are behind bars. That’s compared with 434 per 100,000 for No. 2, Rwanda. Long prison sentences and high recidivism rates are endemic. Crime waves of the 1980s and early 1990s led to an explosion in prison growth. The US prison population skyrocketed from 400,000 in 1988 to 1.4 million in 2012, the peak. About 800,000 of the 2.3 million are put to work, doing everything from cleaning, farming, and mowing for as little as 4 cents an hour in Louisiana to volunteering to fight wildfires in California for $1 an hour, plus $2 a day.

The US is now more than two decades into dramatic declines in violent crime, as well as a shifting understanding of drug addition – as seen in marijuana decriminalization and empathy for those caught in the opioid epidemic. And there is evidence that the US may be more willing to listen to advocates for prisoner rights – and, critically, prisoners themselves.

“It is essential for prisoners to have a voice in the political sphere in order for us to see substantial changes in our criminal justice system,” says Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, one of the chief organizers of the strike, in an email. “The lack of humane conditions for prisoners is directly influenced by people’s ignorance to the conditions that prisoners are forced to live and work in.”

That cultural arm’s-length is compounded by a lack of transparency into how prisons operate. Prisoners in Ohio are demanding, among other things, less restrictive access to media interviews. Tying those complaints to a broader solidarity movement – cross-racial, cross-ethnic, and cross-gang – is new, criminal justice experts say.

Varied effects of reform

Some states have taken the lead on improving prison conditions. North Dakota has revamped its prisons along a Norwegian model, going from a more punitive model to a rehabilitative one. In the process, the state has dramatically reduced prison populations and punishments like solitary confinement. Utah and California are trying out a low-security prison-model that looks more like a college campus than a modern-day Alcatraz.

Ironically, a bipartisan criminal justice reform effort may have exacerbated the current wave of prison protest. In 2010, in a bipartisan bid, South Carolina lawmakers rewrote state sentencing laws to reduce prison populations. They also dramatically cut the prison budget.

The result at Lee Correctional Institution was a growing disparity between guard numbers and prisoners – a 1 to 44 ratio – and statistics that showed the rate of people killed while incarcerated rising dramatically in South Carolina. As conditions in prisons worsened, the number of inmates killed in 2017 quadrupled from only two years earlier in the state.

That number spiked this spring when rioting engulfed Lee. Authorities lost control of the prison for at least seven hours. Dozens were injured and seven died. The coroner said some of the victims could have lived if medical help had been administered earlier.

“They bled and died,” Eddie told reporters during the press call. “And we just want everybody to remember the horrific conditions that brought these deaths about.”

The lack of safety guarantees for prisoners at some prisons became the fuel for the protest, underscoring a sense among prisoners that they are captives of a system that treats them as “subhuman,” according to former Texas inmate Lewis Conway.

Mr. Conway spent eight years in a Texas prison for manslaughter after stabbing a man to death during a dispute in 1991. His voting rights restored after 12 years of parole, he is now running for the Austin City Council. He knows what it feels like to be in a separate class – his campaign is unprecedented in Texas. While his opponents and the Austin City Clerk aren’t disputing his candidacy, the Texas secretary of State’s office has questioned its legality.

To him, the plight of prisoners is society’s plight, where “as soon as you start to solve baseline problems [like employment for ex-cons], it begins to help conditions with other problems.”

From Attica in 1971 to Pelican Bay in 2010, he says, prisoners have been able to glean concessions without reporters on the scene.

“There is a way in which the conversation about [criminal justice reform] goes up against basic demands that prisoners have been putting forward – food without maggots, more potable water, fair wages,” says Toussaint Losier, co-author of “Rethinking the American Prison Movement,” and an Afro-American studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. “What stands out to me about this kind of prison organizing is that we see it happening in places like Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas that are not epicenters of this kind of [justice reform] politics.”

It is unlcear whether prison activism is reaching beyond the razor wire. Some Democrats, including New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have spoken out. South Carolina gubernatorial candidate James Smith told USA Today after the Lee riots that conditions in South Carolina prisons are “deplorable.”

And the protests have shown that prisoners can successfully join with outside advocates. Some 500 people showed up in solidarity outside San Quentin late last month.

“The forces for reform in corrections are great and [are] making a difference,” writes Professor Useem, in West Lafayette, Ind. And “if things are improved today, might they not be improved even more tomorrow?”

An earlier version of this story said Mr. Friedmann worked at the Human Rights Center, not the Human Rights Defense Center. It also misspelled his name.

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