Major prison strike spreads across US and Canada as inmates refuse food
Prisoners stand against forced labor and other indignities amid reports of action in California, Washington state and Nova Scotia
A prison strike has begun to take hold in custodial institutions across North America, with reports of sporadic protest action from California and Washington state to the eastern seaboard as far south as Florida and up to Nova Scotia in Canada.
Details remain sketchy as information dribbles out through the porous walls of the country’s penitentiaries. Prison reform advocacy groups liaising with strike organisers said Wednesday that protests had been confirmed in three states, with further unconfirmed reports emerging from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
The confirmed cases related to a hunger strike in Folsom state prison in California. A 26-year-old inmate called Heriberto Garcia managed to dispatch to the outside world a smartphone recording of himself refusing food. The video was then posted on Twitter.
When he was told the contents of the meal, Garcia could be heard replying: “Burritos or not, not eating today. Protest. I’m hunger striking right now.”
The second confirmed action was in the Northwest detention center in Tacoma, Washington, where as many as 200 detained immigrants joined the nationwide protest. The Canadian unrest occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where prisoners at Burnside jail put out a statement in solidarity with their striking US equivalents complaining that they were being “warehoused as inmates, not treated as human beings”.
The 19-day strike is the first such nationwide action in the US in two years and was triggered by April’s rioting in Lee correctional institution in South Carolina in which seven inmates were killed. The start of the strike on Monday was symbolically timed to mark the 47th anniversary of the death of the Black Panther leader George Jackson in San Quentin prison in California.
One of the intentions of the organisers of the current dispute is to bring to public attention the spate of deaths in custody, which in some states has reached epidemic proportions. In Mississippi, 10 inmates have died in their cells in the past three weeks alone, with no firm indication of their causes of death.
In addition to loss of life, the strikers, led by a network of incarcerated activists who call themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, have put out a set of 10 demands to overhaul America’s creaking penal system. High up on the list is an end to forced or underpaid labor that the protesters call a form of modern slavery.
Kevin Rashid Johnson, who is serving a life sentence in Sussex state prison in Waverly, Virginia, writes in the Guardian that he sees prison work as “slave labor that still exists in the United States in 2018. In fact, slavery never ended in this country.”
Other demands laid down by the strikers include more investment in rehabilitation services and better medical treatment for mentally-ill prisoners.
In many states, prisoners have framed their own local set of demands. In North Carolina, a manifesto was released in July that focuses on ending the use of solitary confinement and scrapping lifetime sentences. “No human shall be sentenced to death by incarceration,” it states.
Earlier this week about 100 prisoners in Hyde correctional institute in Fairfield, North Carolina, were seen in the yard of the penitentiary carrying banners that said: “Parole”, “Better Food” and “In solidarity”.
Among the main tactics that are being deployed in the strike are a refusal to work, a boycott of purchases at prison commissaries, sit-ins and hunger strikes.
Advocacy groups such as the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee stressed that given the nature of high-security prisons, much of the activity involved in the strike could take days to reach the outside world if it gets out at all.
Accounts of what was happening were already colliding, with those given by outside supporters of the action flatly contradicting statements from prison authorities. In Florida, there were unconfirmed reports of 11 the state’s 143 prisons being struck by organized protests.
That stood in contrast to the statement of the spokesman for the Florida department of corrections that said: “We’ve had no stoppages, protests or lockdowns related to the strike.”