Thousands of Prisoners Strike Against Forced Labor
On the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, Prison Radio’s Noelle Hanrahan explains how and why prisoners organized what may be the largest prison strike in US history
DHARNA NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor, joining you from Baltimore.
Thousands of prisoners across the nation are participating in what could be the largest prison strike in U.S. history. The strike, which is beginning on the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, aims to draw attention to the unfair living and working conditions which incarcerated people face every day.
Now joining us to tell us more about this strike is Noelle Hanrahan. Noelle is an investigative journalist, private investigator, and the director of Prison Radio. She’s also the coproducer of the documentary Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Noelle.
NOELLE HANRAHAN: I’m glad to be here.
NOOR: Noelle, talk about who is organizing this work strike and why they’ve done so. What are some of the demands that prisoners have?
HANRAHAN: Prisoners all across the country have really been coming together over the last number of years. We saw hunger strikes out in California, Pelican Bay, hunger strikes in Wisconsin. The Ohio prisoners are organizing, prisoners in Alabama. So I think wherever there is oppression, there’s going to be resistance. And people have been starting to come together to really talk about themselves as a convict class.
Now, the types of issues that are happening, well, we have mass incarceration, so there’s an enormous amount of people over-incarcerated in this country. And then the types of sentences they are facing are just horrific.
So let me just talk about some of the things that are happening here in the home state that I report from, Pennsylvania. We have an epidemic of hepatitis C, for instance, that is being untreated. So, since 2013 they’ve treated a handful of people. There’s a cure. So people are literally dying in every infirmary in these prisons in Pennsylvania right now from a completely curable disease. That’s medical neglect. It’s deliberate indifference. It’s unconstitutional.
We have conditions such as overcrowding. We have bad food. We have people who are juvenile lifers who Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia DA are refusing to give the benefit of the new rulings from the Supreme Court, refusing to give them meaningful review of their life sentences.
So there are a lot of conditions throughout this country that prisoners are advocating to change.
And then, outside and inside, people are advocating for the whole mass incarceration issue to be addressed, and be addressed dramatically, not in half measures. That’s why there were hunger strikes. That’s why these prisons strikes are escalating.
And, as many people know, they can’t run the prisons if the prisoners don’t work. A slowdown or work strike in a prison has the effect from the inside of bringing the whole situation to a huge halt. So it’s organizing and it’s being organized all over the country.
NOOR: And how does something like this get organized? I mean, I know incarcerated folks have some access to phones, to internet, to social media, but still there are some difficulties that come with limited access. So how are folks organizing?
HANRAHAN: You know, I think if people can really imagine that every prison inside every prison, whether it’s a 5,000 person prison or a 6,000 person prison or a 100 person prison, they’re the same social networks and communications systems and they’re same levels of people who are committed organizers, [committed] activists, jailhouse lawyers. I mean, Prison Legal News has been fighting to get its amazing information in for 25 years now in terms of people accessing their rights.
So there is an incredible community inside who are self-educating. You know, they are moving things in their own ways–by filing pro se lawsuits, by organizing themselves. We saw leadership from the inside in many of these hunger strikes. And so that’s really determinative.
So how did they do it? Just like [people] organize at a workplace, just [like] people organize for strikes or unions or card checks. People organize. And the same is true of these communities that happen to be within prisons.
Now, yes, we are using technology, but prisons do put up pretty big barriers, and we always have to fight to get in. Prison Radio fights to have access to our prison correspondents. We fight for them to be able to have access to paper, pencil, research materials.
So it is more difficult, but I think there’s an incredible will inside, because where there is oppression, there is resistance. And where people feel a sense of human dignity, they’re not going to let their dignity be compromised. And so it does take some extra effort and people and community and organizers to go in and communicate with prisoners. But, you know, prisoners do not lose their First Amendment rights when they go to prison, and we have to know our rights and we have to fight for them.
NOOR: Now, the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. So this protection actually is not given at all to folks who are behind bars. What impact does this have on the prison population in terms of organizing for fairer conditions, and specifically labor rights? And what other kinds of legal barriers do prisoners face when trying to improve their labor conditions?
HANRAHAN: I think the whole set of laws that have defined prisons and defined our mass incarceration boom are really based on a lot of biases. So it’s an incredible hurdle to go up against this criminal justice system. If we think we’re going to get relief through the courts, it’s difficult. We must have fantastic lawyers. We must have active pro se litigants inside.
But it’s also really going to be people’s feet on the ground. It’s going to be community organizing. It’s going to be people inside organizing. It’s going to be social pressure. It’s going to be the news media doing exposés. It’s going to take everything and the law, and maybe even fighting the law to the end, because the law certainly has codified this–like you just said, the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, for gosh sakes. So we face incredible difficulties with laws that are written to enslave people, literally. And they have made illegal organizing the prisons. They have made unions illegal. They have made fair wages illegal in prison. They have given the prison the ability to punish people for organizing. You can write a letter, but you can’t sign a petition in prison. They throw people in the hole. They divide people. But just like any worksite, just like any job, just like any union organizing, they’re going to try and divide and conquer.
And I think we’re seeing now that there’s an incredible amount of unity inside. People realize who the man is and that it’s unfair. People realize that this culture of incarceration is criminogenic. It creates crime. No other country in the world does it the way we do it. And really it’s obscene. It’s inhumane. It’s biased. It’s racist. And I think there’s a lot of consciousness inside prisons and people know it’s wrong.
NOOR: And what about outside prisons? What kind of support has this strike gotten from outside, from the legal community, from labor organizations or unions or other folks on the outside?
HANRAHAN: Well, the International Workers of the World are leading it. And I would say that they are amplifying what the prisoners want. So I think that there are many groups who are listening to what prisoners need and what prisoners want, including the Center for Constitutional Rights. And there are local anti-prison abolitionist organizers all over the country. They relate sometimes just to the local prison. They relate nationally. They relate to issues such as environmental degradation in prisons. So people have different perspectives and come at it from different places, but there is a very rich inside-out tradition of people, journalists paying attention to the story and really shining a bright, white, hot spotlight on what’s happening in prisons. And it’s that kind of connection. It’s like making sure that the prison doesn’t limit prisoners’ ability to get information in and out. That’s a key factor, and that is how organizers are very involved in the struggle–reporting, sharing information, and staying in contact.
And I think that’s especially important when there’s repression for the leaders of strikes, that keeping in contact with people and making sure the prison is aware that we have our eyes on them so that people cannot be disappeared, they cannot be thrown in the hole. I think that’s super important.
NOOR: And what’s the potential impact of a strike like this? I mean, I know that you said earlier that without prisoners working within the prisons that they occupy, the prisons couldn’t run. So how could this action impact prisons themselves, but then also the states that those prisons are in?
HANRAHAN: Absolutely. It can bring the prison system to a halt. If prisoners did not do work in prisons, they could not run these prisons. It is one way of taking your body and just doing a peaceful sit-down strike. If the prisoners don’t work, these institutions cannot run, and literally it would bring it all to a complete grinding halt.
What often they’re going to do is they’re going to escalate the pressure tactics. They’re going to start repressing people and they’re going to start doing things that we have to be very careful and look at.
NOOR: And what role does prison labor within prisons play in the larger U.S. economy? How much economic impact does it really have?
HANRAHAN: You know, people have been analyzing what happened in the last 30 years to this country, this mass incarceration binge where we have one in 99 people are physically imprisoned, one in 46 people will do time if you add in the race factor. One in three black men will do time in prison in their lifetime. What we’re talking about is targeting people by race, by class, and by place, the inner-city.
So there is an enormous benefit, in some ways, for this society, this capitalist society, that it has warehoused people who would be demanding work and bread, people from the inner-city, when the manufacturing jobs were gone. So there was an enormous advantageousness to this kind of a /p¿¿s¿ro¿s/ program for prisoners. You know, it is an economic issue that they have taken this number of people and warehoused them in places where they do not live. Like, they’re even giving legislative districts that have prisons more legislators, and they’re denying the prisoners the right to vote, yet the populations that exist where the prisons are are getting more legislators for it. So they’re using prisoners as a commodity.
And they do do some work for capitalist companies or the companies, but it’s not so much that. It’s more the population, the labor pool that this culture, we as a humane culture, have a need to educate and to provide work and to provide a meaningful life for people that are in our culture. And this is a way of not having to do that for a number, thousands, millions of people. And it’s like a pressure valve. It’s by taking all these people out of the workforce without having to be accountable and responsible for building an economy that is rich and diverse and serves everyone and not just the 1 percent.
NOOR: Now, I want to finish by asking you, on the date we’re recording, it’s also the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison strike, and in that strike about 1,000 prisoners stood up demanding political representation and better living conditions. What’s changed since then in terms of conditions faced within prisons?
HANRAHAN: It’s gotten much worse. I mean literally. We have a lot more people incarcerated and we have a really difficult situation in many institutions. And we don’t have the same kind of vigorous investigative press or courageous senators, representatives. We don’t have the level of oversight of these institutions that we need. We have a very un-courageous system that is really disappearing these people. So the prison population has expanded by hundreds of percent and we do not have the level of investigative journalism that The Real News provides, that we need with The Baltimore Sun, for instance, that we need every paper having a news department, an investigative news department. We don’t have that anymore. So we’re really lacking in the ability to get in and get the stories out from inside.
That’s kind of what Prison Radio does is we allow first-person journalism to happen within prisons by letting prisoners speak for themselves.
NOOR: Noelle Hanrahan is the director of Prison Radio. She’s also an investigative journalist, a private investigator, and the producer of the documentary Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Thanks so much for joining us, Noelle, and we hope to talk to you again soon.
HANRAHAN: That’s great. OK. Thank you very much.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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