“Make the Nation Look at our Demands:” The 2018 National Prison Strike and the Crises of Mass Incarceration

This is part of our special feature on Crime and Punishment. 


On April 24, 2018, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a network of incarcerated prisoners’ rights advocates, issued a list of grievances. Outlined as a set of ten demands, this document called for basic improvements to prison conditions, the reform of harsh sentencing practices, and the restoration of basic constitutional rights to those behind bars. These ten demands were not addressed to a warden or a particular correctional official, but rather were put before the public via twitter in the form of a press release. And rather than addressing current events, this press release gave advance notice of protest actions that those in JLS, other prisoner organizations, and incarcerated people more generally would be taking four months later.

“These men and women are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end to modern day slavery,” it read. “Make the nation take a look at our demands.” Developed through deliberations that sought to be inclusive of men and women held not only in state prisons, but also federal correctional and immigrant detention facilities, this statement served as the first public announcement of the 2018 National Prisoners Strike, an event that sheds light on the fault lines shaping the current landscape of the US criminal justice system.

Beginning on August 21st to mark the anniversary of the 1971 assassination of prisoner intellectual and revolutionary organizer George Jackson, this summer’s strike ranged from labor and hunger strikes to sit-ins and commissary boycotts. While corrections officials routinely denied that any protest was taking place, the strike call overcame some of the barriers that generally frustrate prisoner organizing efforts and reached at least 16 state and federal prisons. Lasting for eighteen days, before ending on September 9th, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, this strike also garnered unprecedented mainstream media coverage as well as the endorsement of more than 200 community organizations, with supporters conducting call-in campaigns, noise demonstrations, teach-ins, and various nonviolent protests. For JLS spokesperson Amani Sawari, “it has been a huge success of the 2018 prison strike that the 10 points have been pushed into the national and international consciousness.”

While it did not result in any immediate, broad scale transformation of the US system of mass incarceration, a phenomenon that has for some time left this country with almost 2.3 million people behind bars, it does offer a window onto some of the system’s weaknesses. Indeed, rather than taking the scale of this, the world’s largest prison system, as an automatic indication of its stability, JLS’s announcement suggests that it might be more accurate to examine the US prison system as one contending with several interrelated crises. And carried out amidst these crises, the 2018 National Prison Strike points to the further development of a social movement emerging with the jails, prisons, and immigrant detention facilities scattered across this country. While directly drawing on the legacies of radical prison organizing of the 1960s and 70s, this current movement-in-the-making is distinct in the ways that reflect both contemporary prison management and political culture. Taking into account both the current crises of mass incarceration and the developing prison movement, it is quite likely that the US criminal justice system is entering a protract interregnum, or intermediary period, where many of the old assumptions about the place of prisons in our society are being questioned, while a clear sense of how the status quo might be transformed has yet to fully develop.


The World’s Leader in Incarceration

Since the publication of criminal justice expert Marc Mauer’s book Race to Incarcerate in 1999, mass incarceration has come to serve as a shorthand way of talking about the relative size and scale of US imprisonment. Although the system itself is fragmented, with various aspects of it being overseen by municipal, county, state, and federal authorities, this big picture formulation is both clarifying and provocative. It offers, for instance, a sense of its size. If the US prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest one in the country, significantly ahead of Phoenix (1.6 million) and just behind Houston (2.3 million). In contrast to a popular conception, hardly any of this over reliance on incarceration is directly attributable to privately-managed prisons, as these facilities hold only 8.4 percent of the larger prison population. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the overwhelming majority of those held behind bars are in publicly owned and operated facilities, including some 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 1,719 state prisons, and 3,163 local jails.

The emergence of mass incarceration is most closely associated with the War on Drugs, a campaign of domestic policing, federal prohibition, and military intervention that began in 1971. Eleven years later, newly elected President Ronald Reagan officially reinforced and expanded it. Yet, as important as this campaign has been for reshaping the way in which criminal justice works at the federal level, where nearly half of all incarcerated people are held on non-violent drug convictions, often serving lengthy sentences as a result, the circumstance in state prisons and local jails, where most people are held, differ to some degree. Here, crimes like assault and robbery, as well as property and public order offenses make up the majority of those that have sent men and women to prison.

Similarly, the makeup of those behind bars also reflects stark racial inequities, with African American making up just 12 percent of the US population, but more than 1 third of the federal and state prison populations. Compare this to whites, who make up 64 percent of US adults, but less than a third of those behind bars. At the same time, it is important to note that since 2009, when the total prison population peaked before declining incrementally, this stark racial disparity has declined slightly over the past several years, as the numbers of Black people have declined 17 percent, somewhat higher than the 10 percent decline in the number of white people held behind bars. While there are several reasons why these racial disparities have shrunk, it remains clear that with upwards of 90 to 95 percent of all criminal convictions the result of a plea bargain and nearly two thirds of those in jail awaiting trial, that a lack of access to quality legal representation, in many ways a marker of one’s class position, rounds out the lives of not only individuals and families, but also poor and working class communities more generally.

In addition to the system’s scale, it is also worth noting that the character of mass incarceration is more than just a question of numbers. Prisons in the US would be discussed quite differently if, for instance, the primary activity that prisoners were engaged in was that of productive labor. This was certainly the case a century ago, a period best associated with the chain gang, prison industries, and the notorious convict lease system, a highly exploitative form of prisoner management that provided cheap labor for a range of industries, primarily in the US South. In contrast, while there remains some variation as to how much each state provides opportunities for prison labor, most people held behind bars may work jobs contracted to their institution or associated with its daily operations, but, in the final analysis, they spend much of their time idle. Rather than putting to work incarcerated people, most of whom are young men in the prime of their lives, this system is premised on their incapacitation.

This goal of incapacitation is even reflected in how prisons during this era have been built and managed, what could be called the “warehouse” model of imprisonment. From Connecticut to California, prisons and jails of this era routinely face severe overcrowding, stern discipline, minimal rehabilitative programming, and limited medical and mental health care. The most extreme form of punishment under this model is one of long term solitary confinement, reflected in both the “control unit” segment of a prison and the stand alone “supermax,” or super-maximum-security correctional facility. Each takes the incapacitation goal of the warehouse prison to its logical conclusion as people incarcerated there spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in small cell, with little-to-no human contact. In 1986, Arizona became the first state to open a supermax. Three years later, California would be the second, transferring its most troublesome prisoners to the newly built Pelican Bay State Prison. By 1995, there would be 20 supermax prisons across the country. Within a decade, that number had reached nearly thirty. Designed not for rehabilitative purposes, but to discourage unrest and isolate those seen as key agitators, these prisons reflect an institutional backlash to the radical prison organizing of the 1960s and 70s.


Mass Incarceration as a Backlash to Prison Organizing

This relationship between prison organizing and mass incarceration is a significant and often overlooked point. During the course of the 1980s and 90s, the rise in the US prison population, as well as the shift to the “warehouse” prison as a new form of prison management, was premised on the suppression of the prisoner organizing ascendant during the 1960s and 70s. State officials did not simply build more prisons, but they commissioned increasingly secure, riot-proof facilities. These new prisons were designed to hold captive a population that might regularly exceed official capacity, while limiting the space in which imprisoned men and women might move about, congregate together, and, potentially, gain control of the institution.

Although this prison build up touched each corner of the country, it had its greatest impact across the southern portion of the US, a region known as the Sunbelt. There, officials turned to prison construction as a way to meet the requirements of court-mandated reforms, assuage concerns of growing racial disorder, respond to concerns regarding rural disinvestment, and realize the benefits of “tough on crime” politics. Ultimately, these pressures galvanized southern states, most of them known for their commitment to frugality and small government, to designate ever-larger budget allocations to prison construction and management. By 1995, this region was locking up 44 percent of all state prisoners, even though it accounted for a much smaller percentage of the nation’s total population. From Florida and Georgia to Texas and California, the Sunbelt has been at the forefront of this new system of mass incarceration.

This new system has also been shaped by rolling back the gains incarcerated people had previously secured by gaining access to the courts. Beginning in the 1960s, prisoners who petitioned the courts on matters of constitutional law, often referred to as jailhouse lawyers, had found ways to gain a hearing in federal courts. Overcoming a longstanding tradition whereby judges had avoided addressing nearly all prison-related issues, jailhouse lawyers won access to the federal courts as a venue that offered them a limited set of basic civil and procedural protections. As result of their efforts, as well as the support of outside legal organizations, prison systems across the country, but especially in the Sunbelt, had been forced to make prison conditions more humane. By the 1980s, however, correctional officials were increasingly using this court-ordered reform mandate to modernize and build up their prisons in a manner premised not on the human rights of those beyond bars, but the need to control them.

The courts would quickly follow this shift towards prioritizing prisoner control and institutional security above all else. As officials built more “warehouse” style prisons, a series of US Supreme Court cases—from Jones v. North Carolina (1977), which emphasized the security needs of prison administrators to Rhodes v. Chapman (1981), which undercut claims of cruel and unusual punishment, to Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail (1992), which encouraged lower courts to defer to the authority of state and local officials when ruling on matters of prison and jail administration—marked a significant retreat from a prior standards for judicial intervention on matters of prisoners’ rights.

For its part, the US Congress would draw on the court’s example by enacting two key laws that further constrained the ability of men and women behind bars to gain a fair hearing in federal court. Touted as a measure that would decrease the volume of prisoner-initiated lawsuits, the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) made it harder for those held behind bars to get relief from the courts. The PLRA enacted a strict exhaustion requirement, stipulating that jailhouse lawyers had to first attempt to remedy their complaints through administrative measures before they could file in court. The new law also limited to three the number of “frivolous” cases a prisoner could file, while also requiring them to now take on the costs of filing a suit in federal court and narrowing the scope of injunctive relief the federal judges could impose if they decided a case in a prisoner’s favor.

Just as the PLRA made it harder for prisoners to use the courts as a venue through which they could demand better treatment, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 also imposed more stringent standards on state prisoners, particularly those on death row, seeking to raise issues regarding their case in federal court. Although these laws did not mark a full return to the “hands off” doctrine” that had long governed the relationship between prisons and the rest of society, they complemented prior court rulings, administrative innovations, and court sensibilities that rolled back the gains won by incarcerated people during the 1960s and 70s. While prisons had briefly been a key site of political activity and public engagement, these changes increasingly helped to shield these institutions from outside engagement, effectively returning them to the margins of society.


The Crises of Mass Incarceration

As stable as this system of mass incarceration might seem, much of what the 2018 National Prison strike helped to reveal is the degree to which it is also beset by crises. While far from a house of cards teetering on the edge of collapse, it is one increasingly defined by the distance between expectations and reality. This distance, and the crisis it engenders, is best reflected in three key areas: institutional legitimacy, fiscal constraints, and demographic pressures. While they have emerged in succession, these three crises have increasingly overlapped with one another and their management will help to determine how the US criminal justice system functions in the future.

The first of these crises to emerge has been the crisis of legitimacy, as the general purpose of incarceration has been called into question. Critiques of the place of prisons in US society that might have once been dismissed as radical have increasingly found their place in public conversation. Much of this shift has been a result of studies undertaken by policy experts, legal advocates, and professional academics. To some degree, this crisis of legitimacy has called attention to the human cost of this decades long build-up of the prison system, a costs increasingly exposed not only by radical scholars like Angela Davis and Christian Parenti, but also more mainstream figures like Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz. Perhaps, no other account of mass incarceration better reflects the emergence of this crisis than the introduction of Alexander’s 2011 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, where she recounts the distance that she herself traveled from initially dismissing grassroots activists’ depictions of mass incarceration as a “New Jim Crow” as simply hyperbole to taking this claim to be true and making it the title of her bestseller.

Beyond the realm of intellectuals, this shift is increasingly reflected in the theater of public opinion, as the tough-on-crime rhetoric that was once politically popular has lost much of its traction. In most parts of the country, capital punishment has been left largely indefensible. The use of DNA tests to exonerate hundreds of wrongfully convicted prisoners has challenged the way many now talk about guilt and innocence. In place of the punitive approach to policy that was once hegemonic, proponents of “Smart on Crime” policies have made headway in key states pushing for moderate reforms to sentencing and prison policy, further undermining the legitimacy of large-scale mass incarceration.

Overlapping with this legitimacy crisis has been a fiscal one as various states have found it increasingly difficult to bear the costs of managing the prison systems that they spent several decades expanding. And as the general public has slowly become more open to those voices calling into question the purpose of mass incarceration, the percentage of county and state budget allocations it absorbs has become less publicly palatable. And in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis and the recession that followed it, this fiscal crisis has hit hard as the prolonged decline in economic growth widened state budget deficits. As revenue declined, state officials were less inclined to float bonds to fund the construction of new prisons as well as pay for the administration of existing facilities as budget pressures have led to cuts in prison staffing and programming.

These cuts have been felt particularly hard across the Sunbelt, and even though the broader economy has grown out of the recession, its effects still linger. No other recent event better reflects the human consequences of this crisis than the bloody riot that took place early this year in South Carolina’s largest maximum security facility, Lee Correctional Institution. Opened in 1993, Lee quickly became known as the state’s most dangerous prison, with incarcerated people repeatedly taking over parts of the facility and holding guards hostage between 2012 and 2016, until prison officials increasingly moved to pit prisoners against each other, even busing in violent offenders from other institutions to concentrate them in one place.

Breaking out on the evening of April 15, 2018, the Lee riot left more than seven prisoners dead and a dozen more wounded, making it the deadliest prison disturbance in recent memory. Although media account depicted the deadly incident as the inevitable results of rival gangs wielding handmade knives and contraband cell phones, critical observers have pointed to a set of systemic issues, like chronic understaffing, routine overcrowding, and generally inhumane conditions that have worsened in South Carolina’s prisons, but in Lee in particular, as the state’s has routinely been among the worst in the country for corrections spending. And as South Carolina has failed to allocate more money to hire new guards, provide rehabilitative programming, and improve other aspects of prison life, the number of prisoners killed more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years prior. As men and women behind bars have been made to bear the brunt of these fiscal pressures, some have taken the violence of their conditions out on each other.

This sort of prisoner-on-prisoner violence has obscured the development of a third, demographic crisis. For several decades, mass incarceration has been premised on holding larger numbers of people behind bars for longer periods of time—typified by mandatory minimums, gang enhancements, and life sentences without the possibility of parole. While politically popular at the outset, this highly punitive sentencing structure failed to anticipate the mounting costs state and federal prisons systems would face as those convicted under these laws increasingly began to age into their senior years in institutions unprepared to meet their growing physical needs, as well as the costs associated with increased mental and medical health services. While still quite a distant problem, this third crisis has the potential to directly compound growing concerns about the system’s legitimacy as well as its fiscal solvency if it were to fully come to a head.


A Growing Prison Movement

In the shadow of mass incarceration’s growing instability, a new social movement has begun to emerge grounded in the self-activity and collective organizing of those behind bars. Through the course of the twentieth century, the prison movement encompassed a broad range of efforts to advance the human rights of incarcerated people, often through active collaboration with outside supporters. While at times radical and visionary, prison activism has usually been from outside seen as fractured and episodic, much of this attributable to the highly repressive character of prisons themselves. As a result, this movement has caught the public’s attention during high profile moments of revolt and insurrection, but has also relied on the often-ignored forms of resistance incarcerated people take up to avoid or minimize the harms of prison conditions.

During the first decades of the twenty-first century, US prisons and detention centers have witnessed a sharp rise in strikes, building takeovers, and other forms of protest. On December 9, 2010, prisoners in Georgia launched a statewide work strike after secretly coordinating their efforts by using contraband cellphones. Planned as a one-day strike, this protest caught officials by surprise. Organizers issued to a set of nine demands, including a living wage for work, increased educational opportunities, decent health care, decadent living conditions, vocational training, greater access to family members, and more just parole decisions. Despite these initial plans, the strike would continue for six days, as prison officials responded by locking down entire prisons, cut off hot water, confiscated cell phones and transferred suspected strike organizers to different facilities. In several cases, guards pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed strikers indiscriminately, then beat those who were ultimately identified as strike leaders.

Other strikes and uprisings would break out in prisons and immigrant detention centers in Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and elsewhere. The biggest occurred at California’s Pelican Bay—one of the nation’s first supermax prisons. There, prisoners staged three hunger strikes between 2011 and 2013 protesting long-term solitary confinement. At its height in 2013, 30,000 incarcerated people throughout the state joined in support of the leadership collective’s five demands. The strike yielded a legal settlement that removed almost all California incarcerated people from long-term isolation. It also produced a historic statement calling for multiracial unity, itself produced by Black, Chicano, and white prisoners who authorities claimed constituted leaders of rival gangs. Their success undermined the historic racial divisions of California prisons, suggesting new opportunities for unity among incarcerated people.

On September 9, 2016, an estimated 24,000 prisoners began what would become the largest prison strike in US history. Called for by the prison-based Free Alabama Movement (FAM), and scheduled to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion, the strike would quickly spread to more than 29 prisons across 12 states. In the years prior, FAM organizers had cut their teeth by leading a series of strikes, hostage takings, other protests that shaken the Alabama prisons system and prompted calls for prison reform. Rather than a cohesive list of demands, grievances driving the national prison strike varied from state to state, and strike activities continued for up to three weeks. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a project of the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant labor union, played a key role in providing outside support. While several key prison organizers would be targeted for repression, this strike demonstrated the emergence of a movement seeking to engage prisoners and outside supporters on a national scale.

This push for both national scale and outside support would be reflected in the call for this latest national strike. In the wake of the bloody riot at Lee County, JLS organizers announced the 2018 strike as a way to redirect the attention of both incarcerated people and the general public to the underlying systemic issues that sparked the tragic loss of life. Moreover, JLS sought to incorporate IWOC and other outside supporters into its efforts to spread the strike call. In an effort to avoid the sort of targeted repression faced by the organizers of previous strikes, JLS organizers explicitly refused to personally identify themselves to the public.

And while it did not spread as broadly as the first national strike, this latest protest garnered significant mainstream media attention, shedding considerable light on the struggles breaking out behind bars as well as their key demands, including the repeal of the PLRA. Even after the end of the strike, incarcerated people and their allies are continuing to press their ten demands, with a view that reforms on these individual issues would push forward the broader movement towards bringing an end to mass incarceration and ultimately winning the goal of prison abolition.


Dr. Toussaint Losier is an Assistant Professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Dr. Losier holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago, with his research focusing on grassroots responses to the postwar emergence of mass incarceration in Chicago. At the UMass Amherst, he teaches courses on African American History, Black Politics, Criminal Justice policy, and transnational social movements. His writing has been published in Souls, Radical History Review, The Journal of Urban History, Against the Current, and Left Turn Magazine. He is co-author of Rethinking the American Prison Movement with Dan Berger and preparing a book manuscript tentatively titled, War for the City: Black Liberation and the Consolidation of the Carceral State.

Photo: Prison bars | Shutterstock
Published on November 8, 2018.


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