Hunger Strikes, Uprisings, And The Politics Of Who Gets Released From Prison
TRNN’s Eddie Conway tracks prison uprisings and discusses how these protests could pave the way for radical change in mass incarceration.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie Conway: I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Thanks for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars for the Real News. We have been watching for the past several weeks the pandemic as it has spread into the prison systems across America and we have a concern that this could be very detrimental to the prison population that’s housed in a confined space, sitting on top of each other in some cases. It could also be detrimental to the guard force that’s coming in and going back into the community. Joining me today is Ray Noll, Duncan [inaudible 00:00:52] and Joy James.
Okay, Duncan, I would like to start off with an overview, you put out a list on your website of incidents around the country. Can you kind of like just give us a broad overview of what’s going on in prisons across the country?
Duncan: Yeah, totally. So since the project started, the Perilous: A Chronical of Prisoner Unrest, we’ve been trying to track all instances of collective prisoner actions in the US and Canada since 2010 and we’ve been chipping away at that. And then when this crisis hit, we were like, we need to go into overdrive and just try to keep up with what we knew was going to be a huge wave of events. And as we predicted, since March 17th, there’s been, from what I can tell and what we can tell based on our research, one of the largest waves of prisoner organizing and unrest in a long time. I think a historian can make up more [inaudible 00:02:05] argument, but seemingly bigger than either of the last two national prisoner strikes, which were huge, amazing events. And this is like, from what I can tell, surpassing even those historic events of the prisoner movement.
We’re always counting new events and trying to… We’ll hear rumors on Twitter and stuff and try to at least confirm them, lots of rumors go around. But a current count I have is 48 events in the US and Canada, but only one of those is in Canada. So 47 events in the US since March 17th, which that was the first hunger strike that was a direct response to the virus spreading. And I can talk through some of the most recent numbers really briefly. This wave of prisoner unrest and actions has hit all over the country, but the most frequent states are five in Louisiana, four in New Jersey, four in California and four in Washington. The vast majority of the events that we’ve seen so far are at immigrant detention centers, that’s 26 that we count. But that’s a little bit confusing sometimes because sometimes immigrant detention centers are in county jails and so on. But it’s also had state prisons and one juvenile detention center.
And so what are these events look like? All sorts of stuff. A vast majority are hunger strikes, but there’s also been work stoppages and 10, what we call, uprisings, which is hard to quantify, but more confrontational events, what people might call riots, often attacked with pepper spray or tear gas by the guards. And there’s been also a series of other events like different sorts of protests. This one that got a lot of attention because of the tragic nature of it of this like collective threat of suicide that was put on Facebook live. It was like we’re going to collectively to commit suicide if this is not dealt with an inadequate way. And it’s so hard as we probably all know to count, to find out some of the information, to get in contact with some of the participants and see what issues sparked it, what demands they had, if there were no demands, what do they want the media to know about the riot. That’s difficult.
But what struck me and the rest of the Perilous crew about this wave of prisoner unrest, is that there is this demand that actually was super rare before right now, as far as I can tell, I have a limited scope on this. But the demand for immediate release, which is like this common sense demand that is going to save lives and one of the most inspiring and amazing things about this moment is I think that this demand that even in the prison strikes, they had different sets of demands, all really amazing and well thought out, but this one is super rare. We’re going to hunger strike for our immediate release or for the release of at-risk prisoners, older prisoners, people that have been in for longer amounts of time, slated for release.
That has showed up in many of these actions all across the country and if there is a glimmer of hope in any of this, it’s this common sense demand for more degree of freedom for getting of these facilities that are literally becoming guest sentences for these people. This is demand coming from prisoners and from all parts of society now in a way that could hopefully pave the way for some radical change to incarceration.
Eddie Conway: I looked at some of those. Obviously the threat for mass suicide was [inaudible 00:06:22] drama, but it did get attention in the hunger strikes and so on, they’re getting attention. Ray, maybe you can help me with this. What’s happening? What’s been the general response in the prison systems? As far as you know, the ones that you’re looking at, what’s been the response from the officials and what’s the attitude of the public? Everybody’s on panic mode right now. Can you assess any of that?
Ray: Duncan said about this being sort of a new moment, sort of an unprecedented moment of how people are asking for immediate release. I can only speak to the Chicago, Illinois situation, but certainly that is absolutely on the table. It seems like across the board from both people that are working on detention camps as well as sort of general abolitionists in the city and putting a lot of pressure on multiple levels of governments, including so that the mayor here, Mayor Lightfoot, Sheriff Dart, Cook County board in general, and then the governor in terms of asking for clemency, asking for furlough, asking for immediate release.
It seems like a very promising moment in which there’s sort of this mass scale ask for immediate release certainly from the inside, all across the board from the inside, but as well as a lot of the public. But then I think it’s being somewhat dampered by this concern around what type of crime and who should be released and the slowness of that process and amongst multiple scales of government at this moment.
What we’ve been seeing I think is that, unlike the New York case where a lot of those that have passed inside, there’s been a lot of profiling that they were innocent before proven guilty, but also just thinking about the technicality of their cases and dying is a death punishment for something that are on sort of juridical technicalities. What’s been happening in Chicago is that I think that there’s been a swarming of talking about those that have already died as people that basically deserve to die or because their cases were so violent, so sex offenses, rape, et cetera, there’s been a backlash right now from I think conservatives that saying, what else were we supposed to do, why would we mass release if you know, if these are sort of the worst?
I think something that I’ve been struggling with a little bit is that a lot of people that I know in county are on violent charges and a lot of their friends on treatment units have already been released because they have amazing efforts, one from community bond, but also have [inaudible 00:09:15] enough cases or on nonviolent charges that they’ve already been released.
Not enough focus is on is the way in which even the court systems right now are so, they’re basically suspending the ability for speedy trial at this point constitutionally and this happened at the end of March. But for instance, I have a friend who hasn’t seen a judge since January. Has had continuations now with this basically what is needed for their case is a mitigation, like some sort of mitigation interview because nobody can get in, that interview can’t happen and courts are suspended until at least May, if not longer, which means that even just to have access to a trial right now, so can’t be released because a bond, can’t be released because the charge, but also in this delayed court system has no way of getting out. And so paying attention to the ways in which these constitutional rights to a speedy trial are being impacted, particularly for those with violent charges, it’s super critical right now in a lot of ways.
Eddie Conway: Dr. Joy, I like that. My concern is that, I haven’t spent years in the prison system. I know for a fact that there’s overwhelming black and brown bodies in these systems, especially up at the supermax level, the maximum security level where everybody’s jammed in tight, there’s three inches of steel between each person. Say for instance, in dormitories you sometimes sleeping a foot, two feet away from the bunk next to you, just enough space to walk up and down this aisle. This pandemic, it’s going to have a devastating impact on the prison population and on primary, black and brown bodies. How do you see this?
Joy: Thanks for putting it into a great framework and it reminds me of a cargo ship or the hold, just like being packed in and also the disposability. You’re not humans, you’re just bodies, you’re cargo, you’re laborers that we can exploit and then dispose of it, the economy doesn’t need you right now. I’ve been connected to listening to RAPP a lot, release aging people from prison, Jose Saldana, Laura Whitehorn and others based in New York City and also the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression was re-founded in November in Chicago. Frank Chapman is now the director. Between Chicago Alliance and RAPP, you’re getting a picture of families. We talk about people in the first line, so the families, the friends, the kins of people who are incarcerated are also first line defenders. They’re attempting to give support, deal with the trauma of the people inside, and also deal with the secondary trauma that they’re feeling and also the desperation.
So I’ve heard black mothers say to Cuomo, like when we’re having these viral or virtual engagements that this is not going to be another Attica and that if Cuomo thinks that passing this new budget, he’s going to limit bail reform, he’s going to ignore the incarcerated, he’s going to have them make sanitizer to be sold, but not have soap, regular water or sanitizer for the incarcerated. Then she basically calls them out. Then he needs to have a second thought and also his job doesn’t have the security perhaps that he thinks it does.
I think to answer some of the questions that you’re posing to Duncan and to Ray, they’ve been, setting the stage, too, on how we engage with this. I think that first and foremost, everybody says, we’re all in this together, up to a certain degree and then the disposability of people gets based on your poverty or your wealth, gets based on your radical ideology because I have worked with political prisoners and have tracked the ways in which they’re tortured as an add-on to the general torturous environment of captivity and you’re obviously tracked by race.
What is it? It’s like 30% of the deaths in New York City are probably Latinx and about 24% or so or plus are black. So that’s 60%. It’s like whites are not dying at the rates that black and brown people are dying, nor Asians, but also people who are in these care industries, like they’re maintaining the city, they’re maintaining the hospitals, they’re maintained the entire infrastructure that has accepted that their value isn’t worth the dollar that they’d rather put into investment portfolios.
Eddie Conway: Thank you for that. I’m curious, Duncan or even Ray, do either one of you have an overview number of how many cases up to maybe yesterday has been located in the prison systems, detention centers, et cetera, or how many deaths have occurred? Can either one of y’all address that?
Duncan: As far as like deaths go, as far as cases in Michigan even where I live, it just changes so much and also people don’t have symptoms, 50% of people I heard like don’t have, so it’s really hard to say as far as cases. The two places I’ve just talked about, Rikers and Cook County Jail, Rikers, was having the rate at eight times higher than the rest of New York City and then Cook County has the largest cluster of cases in the country, cook County jail, sorry. And then deaths, my recent numbers say two people died at the Cook County jail, three across prisons in Georgia, 10 at different federal facilities around the country and three others in New York. By the time I read this, these are quite likely out of date, even if I got these numbers yesterday because of the nature of incarceration and the rate at which it spreads is unbelievable. But that’s some picture though from the recent past.
Eddie Conway: Ray, I’m going to get to you in one second. We’re having that same problem here in Maryland because the official numbers come out. There’s two or there’s five employees impacted, three people died, etc. And then when we talk to prisoners inside, we find that there’s dozens of prisoners that’s already been put in isolation, cases that they’re not talking about. The guards are denying that some of their officers have been infected, so it’s really shady. But Ray, you’re looking at the epicenter apparently. How does it look there?
Ray: As we should be suspicious of in all testing right now, the testing right now for inside is also more difficult to get accurate numbers. One thing before I sort of say the sort of numbers that we’ve been hearing in Illinois is that I think it’s important to not put the guard numbers with those that are incarcerated. I’ve been seeing this a lot. The number 493, which is the reason why Cook County got designated as the sort of epicenter of this. It’s 306 for those that are currently incarcerated and the rest are guards. Even though the guard numbers are important that’s basically sort of demonstrating the way that this is getting in and out right now in these spaces. But currently for Cook County, I didn’t look at the numbers this morning, but it’s at 306 and there’s three deaths.
I also have been paying close attention to Logan Correctional, which is the woman’s prison in Illinois. It currently has four cases from staff and two supposed cases testing positive of those that are incarcerated. This also comes after a two to three day loss of electricity and water, a power outage. I’m getting sort of mixed responses of what the source of that was. But I think the fear is right now is does that contribute to more cases in the coming days when people are not able to do laundry to wash, to anything. And also I’ve had limited phone access and tablet access because of that. Those are the numbers we’re looking at and a lot of people just expect them to increase in the coming days.
One thing that I’ve sort of been paying attention to in Chicago with friends that I know of that have been released is that they’re often going into these sort of second chance reentry programs as the only sort of way for employment, if you have a felony record. And most of these positions at this point are frontline positions. The friends that I know are working as bus servicers for CTA and the number of positive cases is kind of unreal at this point or at least, it feels overwhelming to hear how quickly and they’re going into these programs without any sort of protection. Unlike their apprentices, so they don’t have full time employment, they don’t have health insurance, a lot of them are losing their link cards, they’re losing their County Care, their health insurance benefits basically because they’re working too many hours as apprentices, but they don’t have any benefits.
And they’re often absolutely at the frontline of this. They are cleaning the buses in which there’s positive cases on. And because they’re not full time employees, they can’t apply for unemployment, they can’t get sick pay, they have no sick pay, they have no vacation time, and so if we think about just the wave of the impact of people coming out as well and just sort of the scope of the ways in which the prison industrial complex expands into work and these other work programs instead of, again, a lot of friends are mid-fifties, sixties with underlying health conditions being forced to basically work or not have anything. This is where our attention should be as well.
Eddie Conway: And obviously 25% of the world’s population of prisoners is here in America. And like I say, black and brown bodies make up somewhere around 76% of those. It struck me as a potential concentration camp, a disaster here in America with a pretty face on it, lipstick or whatever you want to call it, and I’m concerned that all of these people are locked in and we’re not really getting a lot of news [inaudible 00:21:36]. There’s probably all sorts of stuff going on inside these jails in terms of people being sick, people being in isolation, in the hospitals, in lockdown situations. It concerns me that this could be a dry run for concentration camps. Does this concern you at all, Joy?
Joy: I have friends, the word genocide has come up and I think you raised it as well and the academic in me says, this is the 50th anniversary coming up for We Charge Genocide. When William Patterson crafted and Malcolm marched to the UN and so I think like the information that Duncan, that Ray and that others and yourself, we’ve put on the table, it would have to be information that we would want to look at without a filter, without these kinds of cheering like, well we’ll get through this or we’re better than this.
People talk about it’s a war as if a virus is actually the aggressor. The aggressor’s the state. That’s why you have so many cage people, the highest rate in the world. That’s why they’re treated as bad as you would treat abused animals because their humanity doesn’t register It’s a word that has sophisticated propaganda aspects. I think Ray or Duncan spoke to that, this we’ll let the good ones out maybe, but the bad ones are going to be a threat. The state is a threat to you and that doesn’t minimize the crime that happens, the domestic violence that happens, the sexual assault that happens [inaudible 00:23:29].
But the state is a predatory state and I’m not speaking a hyperbolic sense or we don’t have to run through the numbers, we don’t have to go through like what happened after Katrina in terms of disposability, what happened in Flint, Michigan with the water and Legionnaires’ disease, people dying from that. This is a thing in New York. I’m at window, we’re banging on the can with the wooden spoon and I’m expressing my appreciation for all the healthcare providers, for all the people who are keeping the buses running the subways, there are hundreds of people who are out, 30 plus people who do mass transit have died, bus drivers.
In terms of our emotional intelligence, it goes back to camps of disposability, concentration camps. It’s not just their appreciation that’s part of our emotions, it’s our rage. And this is what I’m looking for as a public discourse, not just with my friends. Our right to be furious and enraged about this moment, which has always been this moment. It’s just like incredibly expanded, it’s not even the numbers of death, it’s because the economy got screwed up. People die all the time in the states based on race, poverty. They’re hunted, they’re exploited, but because the economy is off-kilter, it’s having an impact that radiates straight up the ladder. And then what they’re going to do is enforce austerity measures, which is what Cuomo did with this new budget, which is just going to create more stress, more distressed, more death.
Yeah, I side with my friends, it’s genocidal. It doesn’t have to be Nazi Germany, the UN convention lays it out. It’s multi-varied. And then the point becomes, would we want to have a confrontation however that evolves intellectually, politically, electorally around disposability and mass death.
And one last thing I want to say. The official numbers are the numbers that make it to the hospital. A lot of people don’t make it to the hospital. 200 people die a day in their apartments in New York City. And since you’re not testing, you don’t know that they’re dying from COVID. But disproportionately, they’re going to be black and brown people. We’ve always been dying at home, we’ve always been dying homeless, we’ve been dying in prison, we’ve been dying outside of prison. Somehow if this is a pivotal moment, we would have to have an analysis that would be able to make an impact on the political order.
Duncan: I think from what I’ve seen and the actions that I’ve helped research for Perilous, prisoners are right there with the tone of this panel. Not to generalize all prisoners, but it’s people are talking about it as life or death. They’re talking about it. If they’re not saying genocide, they’re seeing it as a death sentence, as whatever, however they got in there whether that’s for immigration reasons. They’re seeing now is [inaudible 00:27:04] as a life or death situation and they’re fighting for their life. They’re fighting for their survival and they’re fighting for their freedom. That’s part of the story, too, of this resistance to the genocide.
Eddie Conway: Well, since we got a couple minutes, though if it’s all right with you all, I do want to get the idea in also from the three of y’all of who can people reach out to or what can they or should they be doing? Ray, you want to stay off?
Ray: I just like echo what Duncan and sort of everybody else has said is that one of the most important things right now is communication inside, daily communication. We shouldn’t expect that the official releases for any of this information is going to be accurate and so having connections and strengthening those connections right now is crucial and critical. Also, just following the line of what already so many beautiful organizations have showed up in the last month or so demanding call-ins, demanding to floor the governor’s lines and all these lines to demand immediate release and putting in a lot of work of getting statements and other materials out as quickly as possible.
My one thing around this is of course that I feel very skeptical of asking the state when the state has failed so many of us, particularly failed black and brown communities over and over and over again to ask them to do immediate release just seems a difficult ask or one that doesn’t seem clear to me will be done with any sort of pressure. And the other option I think is caravans and we’re in this unique moment where we can’t organize the way that we used to be able to organize. And so I think caravans had been really brilliant ways to respond to gathering and being instead of in public whatever that means at these moments.
I think we should also be careful about these, too. They are often about visibility and spectacle. For instance, in Chicago when the caravan happened, Toni Preckwinkle, who’s part of the board, thanked the organizers for doing this caravan and I don’t know how much we could say we’re on the right side if we have the sort of politicians who are basically blocking this, thanking us for that sort of work. It means that we’re not pushing hard enough. And I would sort of reaffirm that the goals of something like a caravan can be multiple and it can be about shared visibility, shared joy, but also getting noise across. People inside can hear, particularly at County. It’s not true at other rural prisons that have long gates between the streets, but certainly people inside can and these in coordinating with people inside to know that you’re there, having a phone number where you can show that to a number of people, can call and talk about conditions during the caravan. Those are really important moves and had been done through lots of actions like Dekalb, Atlanta people did this.
But the other thing is thinking about our cars at this point and those who have access to cars, we can act as barricades to these infrastructures, thinking about people being able to come in and out and thinking about response times to national guard. If we really think that the actual fight of this all is going to be happening in a moment of unrest, that’s actually where the fight is. We can do all the stuff in the outside to support, but if we have sort of a meaningful understanding that this fight is actually happening between in that moment, thinking about ways that caravans can mobilize at that moment, too. I think it’s crucial and important to thinking about being a part of that fight that’s, again, beyond visibility only, which I’m not diminishing, but also just saying we can take a step up, take it up a notch, I think in that way.
Eddie Conway: I’m going to bounce back to you, Duncan, for what people can be doing.
Duncan: That’s always a good question and always a hard question to answer. I think people are positioned to do different things and there are some paroles are happening in Michigan, at least. People are getting pushed out of the door a little bit and supporting people that get out is a huge thing that we’re looking at here. I love what Ray was saying and also people that aren’t paroled are getting out themselves. There’s been a couple of escapes because of this, because the choice is escape or die for these people and that’s how they’re framing it. I think the one in this county jail in Washington, after four or five days, people got caught up again. But if you’re watching this and that happens around you, these people are fleeing for their lives and I think this is a wild time where new things are possible and I think taking whatever action you’re positioned to do to protect people and especially the vulnerable and the prisoners.
Eddie Conway: Joy, same question, but I was just thinking as this was going about Storming the Bastille and I know we can’t storm the Bastille here now under these circumstances, but what do you think people can be doing, should be doing and what’s your final thoughts?
Joy: I appreciate that question. I’ve been asking that to myself and with my folks, but one thing that comes out is the distribution lines. We can get goods to the extent that we can buy supplies or for people in prison put more money into their commissary. But distribution, like it’s all about distribution supplies, what you can get in or what you can give in terms of stamps of that people can write to you via email or Jpay or whatever, but also outside. I think it’s almost like parallel worlds. There needs to be distribution centers, like you can’t rely on the state to be able to deliver.
The other thing I think I know we’re talking about the US, but we also need to go global just because of what’s going on in Brazil with Bolsonaro, what’s going on in Haiti, we could go around the globe. It may seem like it’s a stretch, but it’s not. If we can see what other countries are doing and we can compare with our own and we can work with people that we know, including political prisoners, who I think have knowledge about how deep state repression goes. Political prisoners in the US, political prisoners in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, indigenous, black people, radicals of all ethnicities, of all backgrounds, I think that’s important.
And one of the last things I would say or two lat things, for somebody who’s an academic like me, we have to change our consumption patterns. We need to consume less, put aside funds more, and then distribute them to these organizations that can distribute them in different ways for advocacy or for the people who are inside. And then it is a fight. We have ongoing, a political fight with government on all branches in all levels. If you can lobby your governor to whatever [inaudible 00:35:12] of prisons, et cetera, with compassionate release clemency. The people are calling all different levels of the government and just flooding their phone lines. They’re writing. That’s one kind of advocacy.
I don’t want to belabor this point. Everything that we’re doing is going to be important. Everything we do is going to be insufficient. We will still have people we care about, people we never know who will die, but our trauma from that can be, I’m thinking of Greta Thunberg who says, “Asperger’s is a super power.” Our trauma could be our superpower, that we won’t compromise with this same old template that we keep being presented in front of us as some sort of panacea for all these ills that are largely created by predatory behavior from government and from corporations and others. There’ll be other pandemics, but maybe in struggling with this one, we’ll be better prepared to increase our chances and the chances of the people who should not be captive anywhere.
Eddie Conway: All right, thank you for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars for The Real News.