How to Organize a Prison Strike
Organizers inside and outside of the penitentiary walls are teaming up—and getting creative—to fight for reform.
“There are various industries that are run by inmates, and we intend to sit down and refuse to work—have an economic protest, if you would—to bring about change,” says one of the nearly 100,000 inmates in the Florida prison system. His words, conveyed through anonymized audio recording, refer to “Operation PUSH,” the latest in a series of recent prison strikes challenging the corrections system in the United States. According to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prison labor union, the Florida-based strike has reached at least 17 correctional facilities across the state. But according to the Florida Department of Corrections, there is no strike.
This Orwellian contradiction—intended to deter the spread of a movement by denying its very existence—is just one aspect of the difficulties that inmates face as they organize to demand improvements to prison conditions, labor practices, and criminal justice legislation. Even so, organizing among the incarcerated has been growing, aided by outside support and fueled by ingenuity.
The first thing to know about prison strikes is that they are not legally protected. “Inmates are not allowed to organize, due to a threat to the security and good order of institutions,” a Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson says. Crackdowns on prison labor organizing were challenged as unconstitutional infringements on inmates’ rights in a 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, but the court overturned a previous judgment in favor of the union, arguing that First and Fourteenth Amendment protections do not extend to prison labor unions.
Yet, despite the lack of legal protection, prison strikes have recently been increasing in frequency, size, and intensity. Operation PUSH is only the latest example of collective action taken by inmates in Florida and beyond. September 9th, 2016, marked the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, where 1,000 inmates protesting for better living conditions and greater political rights were violently suppressed by corrections officers, state police, and national guards, who killed 33 prisoners. Inmates across the country observed the anniversary of the occasion with the largest prison strike in U.S. history, involving prisoners from up to 46 facilities in 24 states, who refused to work, staged hunger strikes, and disrupted operations. Disruptions in Florida were particularly extreme, with the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) reporting days-long facility lockdowns, during which inmates were confined to their dorms and all visitors were barred.
Another nationwide strike occurred August 19th, 2017, coinciding with the “Millions for Prisoners March” in Washington, D.C., and related events in 16 other cities, where participants demanded the clause allowing prison slavery be removed from the Thirteenth Amendment. In anticipation, all FDOC institutions were preemptively put on lockdown for an indefinite period—an unprecedented move, according to the Miami Herald.
The recent growth of prison strikes has been bolstered by new systems of outside support. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, for example, is comprised of both inmates and advocates. Founded in 2014, the IWOC began in response to a request for organizing assistance from the Free Alabama Movement, an inmates’ rights group. By exploiting a loophole that allows prisoners to receive union literature (regardless of their inability to legally unionize), advocates began making contact. Corresponding, educating each other, and building relationships through sluggish prison mail, advocates and inmates together created and grew the union.
To date, the IWOC has 800 incarcerated members in 46 different states. It is just one of the primary groups supporting Operation PUSH, alongside other activist organizations pushing for prison reform, such as Supporting Prisoners And Real Change, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, Dream Defenders, and the National Lawyers Guild, as well as Florida chapters of Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America.
Because many of the basic techniques of traditional labor organizing, like holding meetings, are forbidden in prison, it’s necessary that inmates be creative. Cole Dorsey is now an outside advocate with the IWOC’s Oakland local, but he recalls his experience while incarcerated in Michigan for three years in the early 2000s. As prisoners are permitted to congregate for religious services, he and his fellow inmates met under the auspices of the Nation of Islam.
“We spent time talking about revolutionary politics, how prisons were a vital component of the carceral state, and how we needed to start relying on one another and building cultures of solidarity,” Dorsey says.
As a group, their accomplishments ranged from connecting a soon-to-be-released prisoner with resources for housing, therapy, and benefits programs, to coordinating a protest involving the flooding of a cell block. For such secretive organizing, Dorsey points to the importance of “kites”: handwritten notes surreptitiously passed between prisoners—or even via guards, if the price is right. Smuggled cell phones have also played a large role, allowing inmates to speak with outside advocates, journalists, and others without being subjected to the prying of prison administrators.
For their part, outside advocates take their cues from inmates. Operation PUSH, for example, was planned by prisoners independent from the IWOC.
“They asked for help organizing and spreading their campaign, and that is exactly what we do,” says Karen Smith, secretary of the IWOC’s Gainesville branch.
Advocates act as prisoners’ lines to the outside world, conveying messages to family, friends, press, and, in cases of large-scale organizing, inmates at other facilities. They also provide prisoners with financial aid for stamps and writing materials, or to stock up on food and other supplies before a strike. And when repression does occur, advocates contest disciplinary records, coordinate call-in campaigns, and organize public demonstrations.
Regardless of the amount of outside support, prison labor organizing remains dangerous work for inmates. The IWOC reports that dozens of their contacts were placed in confinement prior to demonstrations planned for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Although the FDOC claims no repression has taken place (“There was no punitive action on the work stoppage because it didn’t happen—there was no strike,” says FDOC Director of Communications Michelle Glady), prisoners’ letters to the IWOC attest to being confined, investigated, and threatened for their suspected involvement. In a letter to outside organizers, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, an IWOC member incarcerated at Florida State Prison in Raiford, accuses the facility’s warden of charging him with “inciting or attempting to incite a riot or demonstration” for writing an article about the strike for the anarchist website It’s Going Down. Lawyers for Johnson allege that he was tortured in retaliation, locked in an unheated cell for days while temperatures dropped to freezing.
As grim as it may seem, prisoners remain determined to fight. Reached via smuggled cell phone, an anonymous IWOC member incarcerated at a facility somewhere in North Florida reports that Operation PUSH is ongoing, with day-long work stoppages occurring routinely. Smith confirms as much.
“It has taken on a life of its own,” she says of Operation PUSH. “Although most of its originators are still in confinement and some are on their way to Close Management [restrictive housing, including solitary], we are hearing from people all around the state engaging in their own direct actions or experiencing retaliation for plotting to.”
The next big day of action is set for June 19th—a day that’s, not coincidentally, nationally recognized as the commemoration of the end of slavery in the U.S.
“We know several factions of prisoners who plan to carry on the PUSH demands,” Smith says. “Whether it will be reported that way or if we will ever know the actual numbers is another thing.”