Socialist Worker

Protests, boycotts and strikes hit prisons across the US

by Alistair Farrow
Issue No. 2521

An overcrowded prison dormitory in California

An overcrowded prison dormitory in California (Pic: California Department of Corrections)


A wave of prison strikes has spread across the US. Prisoners at an estimated 40 institutions across over 20 US states held strikes, protests and boycotts on Friday of last week.

They are fighting against terrible living conditions and the abysmal pay for the work they do, which averages at £3.50 a day.

The strikes fell on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion in New York state.

Melvyn Rae is one of the organisers of prisoner campaign the Free Alabama Movement.

He spoke to Socialist Worker from solitary confinement, which is used as a punishment for inmates who organise.

He said, “In Alabama alone there have been multiple prison shutdowns, strikes, canteen boycotts and protests.

“There have been multiple demonstrations outside prisons across the country.”

Melvyn described how they first started getting organised after he heard about a 30,000-strong prison strike in Georgia in December 2010.

“Alabama’s right next door but it took us two years to find out about it,” he said. “I was struck by that.

“We didn’t understand the magnitude of economics and were focusing on boycotts and protests.”

Message

After hearing about Georgia, prisoners made a decision to “combine a work strike with social media to spread the message across the country.”

A quarter of the world’s prison population is in the US. Political demands were central to the strike wave.

While the reasons behind the strikes vary from prison to prison, people are also raising demands such as ending the use of solitary confinement as punishment.

“In Alabama there’s an 80 percent functional literacy rate,” said Melvyn. “It’s not mandatory to go to school in prison but it’s mandatory to go to work.

“We’ve identified particular laws like the Habitual Offender Three Strike Laws which we’re campaigning to abolish.

“These are promoted by corporations that profit from cheap prison labour because they maintain prison numbers.”

Whistleblower

US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was behind important Wikileaks revelations, went on hunger strike on Friday of last week after years of abuse.

“I have asked for help time and time again for six years and through five separate confinement locations,” she said in a statement. “My request has only been ignored.”

Azzurro Christino from the Industrial Workers of the World union has been helping to organise support for the strikes.

In Alabama there’s an 80 percent functional literacy rate. It’s not mandatory to go to school in prison but it’s mandatory to go to work.

Melvyn Rae

She told Socialist Worker, “We’ve had reports from a few units, but won’t have reports from all places for up to a month.

“We haven’t yet heard from a number of prisoners that we’re in long-term contact with.

“We’ve been organising prisoner support and noise demonstrations outside prisons.”

There have been solidarity demonstrations outside embassies in Sweden, Germany, Greece and elsewhere. The movement has spread internationally, with prisoners in Victoria, Australia, going on strike for higher wages.

Melvyn said, “We’ve shown we can successfully organise across state lines.”


Win for Sitting Rock Sioux in North Dakota water fight

The Sitting Rock Sioux and their supporters have won a victory in their campaign to halt construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota.

The Obama administration caved in to public pressure and temporarily halted construction on Friday of last week.

This was despite a federal judge ruling against a temporary injunction brought by the Sitting Rock tribe.

Thousands of protesters, among them Native Americans from dozens of nations, have joined the protests against the pipeline.

If the pipeline goes ahead, it will threaten the water supplies of the Standing Rock Sioux and millions of others. Construction has already damaged sacred burial sites.

Standing Rock Sioux chairman Dave Archambault II said, “This an historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and for tribes across the nation. Our voices have been heard.”


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