Prisoners in Florida organize statewide strike demanding payment for labor, cheaper commissary, restore parole for lifers, and to expose abuses, but FDC argues that there are no reports of work stoppages or interruptions in daily operations
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars.
Recently, there has been reports in the news media about a strike that has been taking place in some of the major prisons and health facilities for prisoners in Florida. The State of Florida is denying that there’s a strike. Other people are reporting strikes have been going on since Martin Luther King’s holiday. People in the community have been protesting on the ground. To give us some clarification, we’re in contact with one of the organizers of the outside protests. And so, Karen Smith, thank you for joining me.
KAREN SMITH: Hi, thanks for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Can you explain what’s going on with the prisons down in Florida? Is there a strike or not?
KAREN SMITH: Yep, there is a strike. There’s many prisoners striking across the state and boycotting products and services at the commissary, and the phones, and emails and what not. We have 145 prisons here, spread out across a massive state. Because it’s a nonviolent action, it’s kind of hard to track it and see the signs of it but we’re getting letters in daily of individuals who are participating in the strike, groups, whole dorms, camps that were on lockdown for weeks.
A lot of retaliation for some of our key contacts inside have been put in solitary, had their communication stopped. We’re still trying to piece it together. We have been limited to paper mail, pretty much, that the prison system is in complete control of. The letters are starting to trickle in at a faster rate but we had a little bit of a hard silence there for a couple weeks after the 15th. We’re just now starting to be able to piece together the participation; and because of the retaliation tactics that the Florida Department of Corrections have been using, we’ve been keeping people mostly anonymous.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. What is this about? I mean, why Martin Luther King’s holiday and what kind of demands are we talking about?
KAREN SMITH: Well, the group of prisoners who organized Operation Push chose Martin Luther King Day for, I think, obvious reasons of political protest and activism that Martin Luther King engaged in. Also, it’s the beginning of the year and there’s a whole strategy for 2018 that different prisoner organizing groups across the country are putting together and engaging with each other to build. It was kind of like a kick off, like a way to get the year started.
Here in Florida, the prisoners, the conditions are deplorable. I mean, they’re terrible everywhere but Florida is a really rough, good ol’ boys system of exploitation and abuse. The prisoners here had several clear demands with Operation Push. They would like to stop being price gouged in the commissary. They pay up to four or five times what we pay for some items out here on the street. For example, they pay 70 cents for a single packet of ramen. We pay 16 cents. That’s one of their demands. They’d also like to be-
EDDIE CONWAY: Is that the noodles? Is that the noodles?
KAREN SMITH: Yeah, like a single pack of ramen noodles.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay.
KAREN SMITH: Yeah, you get six for a buck out here and they pay 70 cents for a single one. They’re the poorest, most vulnerable population in our state. They’re being price gouged because they’re trapped. Their families have to flip the bill for that. Especially when you consider that they’re not being fed enough or properly, or well, and they have to subsidize their diets with commissary food. It’s a trap. That’s one of the points of having an economic strategy around Operation Push, as opposed to some of the uprisings that have occurred recently and are still occurring.
This is an economic strategy to hurt profit margins, and to stop shopping, and to stop paying these exorbitant prices for goods and services that we pay a quarter of out here. Like I said, they’d also like to be paid for labor. That is another demand.
EDDIE CONWAY: Whoa, whoa. What do you mean they’re not being paid for labor? You’re saying they’re, are they forced to work for free?
KAREN SMITH: Yes. I mean, that’s what prison is. It’s modern day slavery. They’re forced to work for free and there’s a lot of ways that that looks here in Florida. We have the work that you’re getting traded gain time, just for the running of the prisons, the laundry, the cleaning, the maintenance. We have county contracts with road crews that maintain the parks, the roads, the bike trails; clean up after disasters like hurricanes. We have PRIDE industries as well where prisoners actually produce goods that are mostly used by the state, furniture, uniforms, license plates. They’re paid less than a dollar an hour and a lot of that is taken back by the state for room and board.
EDDIE CONWAY: Are there private corporations? Because I know in Alabama with the Free Alabama Movement, there was some protests around Victoria’s Secret, Walmart and other multinational corporations using the prison labor for cheap and then selling their products on the open market. Is that happening in Florida?
KAREN SMITH: In Florida, like I said, we had PRIDE industries. Most of the goods and services that prisoners produce in Florida are used by the state. As far as the private corporations that are benefiting, that’s happening across the country. All the companies that you listed engage in convict leasing, basically, in order to have cheap production. In Florida, it is mostly state used goods, like I said, furniture, and all our license plates.
We also have a factory in a Florida prison where they recycle electronics and hazardous materials. It’s highly toxic. Again, those prisoners are not being compensated for that, nor are they being provided proper medical care to combat the toxic situation they’ve been put in the middle of.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well now, I understand that there’s been some protests out on the street in front of the prison headquarters in Florida and so on. Can you give me a little idea of what that was like?
KAREN SMITH: Sure. We’ve had some actions outside of the actual prisons, to let the people on the inside know we’re out here to make noise, to disrupt business as usual for the prisons. We’ve also had actions in Tallahassee at the Department of Corrections headquarters, which was just a continuation of the Department of Corrections’ refusal to listen to its citizens. They forced this system on us that is decimating our communities. When the prisoners inside try to affect change or speak out like in the case of Kevin Rashid Johnson, writing an article about Florida prison conditions, they’re locked up. They’re silenced. They’re beat. They’re murdered, sometimes. And the outside, when we as citizens go to our government buildings and demand to be heard, and to have a conversation about affecting change, they literally locked the doors and brought riot cops in through the back and attacked their own citizens after hours of us waiting for a conversation.
There’s a lot of angry people, a lot of parents whose childrens have been trapped this system. They want to be heard. This state and the Department of Corrections continuously just represses and silences people. That’s where we’re at.
EDDIE CONWAY: So, is there anybody negotiating with the Department of Correction in Florida? Is this some, if there’s some kind of way to resolve some of this stuff?
KAREN SMITH: Surrounding Operation Push, no. No one, there’s been no negotiation and the Department of Corrections is pretending as if nothing is happening. Meanwhile, they are locking down their prisons, interrogating people, threatening people that if they speak to us and other advocacy groups on the outside, but then to the public, they’re saying that it’s nothing. There’s been no disruption and nothing’s going on. They’ve refused to come to the table with us and sit down, and begin talking about real change, and steps that can be taken.
There are some legislators that have seemed interested in reform issues, as far as prison reform is concerned. And as I understand, there’s a couple bills in the work that would speak to sentencing reform and juvenile justice. But as far as Operation Push, and meeting their demands or internally working on improving conditions in Florida. No, it’s been just a complete block out from the Department of Corrections.
EDDIE CONWAY: So, for future steps, is there anything you want to share with the public that maybe the public needs to know that they can help be supportive, and so on?
KAREN SMITH: Yeah. I think we learn a lot every, as this movement grows. And it always comes back to building connections across bars. They’ve locked up so many people at this point, chances are you know somebody who’s behind bars. I would really encourage people to reach in and make those connections, to get involved locally. We’re working toward prison abolition. So, we would like to see a world without prisons.
Supporting the people on the inside that are taking steps to make that happen, and are risking their safety and their lives even. Supporting them is something that I think is really important, either with letters or getting involved or even monetarily. I would check out IncarceratedWorkers.org and FightToxicPrisons.org, just to get a little bit of history and what’s going on currently, and future strategies and ways that you can get involved.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. Well thank you for joining me.
KAREN SMITH: Thanks for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: And thank you for joining this edition of Rattling the Bars.