Taking on the 'new Jim Crow': US prison strike targets slave labour

Prisoners at Angola Farm, Louisiana.

Prisoners in many states in the US began a coordinated national strike on August 21, the anniversary of the 1971 killing of Black Panther member and prison activist George Jackson by guards in an escape attempt at San Quentin prison in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the context a mass radicalisation led by Blacks and youth, the incident became a cause célèbre in its day.

The strike ended on September 9, the anniversary of the huge prison uprising at the Attica prison in New York, also in 1971. The rebellion was crushed by a bloody attack ordered by governor Nelson Rockefeller, billionaire scion of the oil industry family. This further exposed the horrors of US prisons.

The central demand of the current actions — which range from work stoppages, hunger strikes, sit-downs and boycotts of prison stores — is an end to prison slave labor.

Most Americans and people around the world do not know that slavery is allowed in prisons by the US Constitution. The 13th Amendment, which ratified the abolition of chattel slavery of African Americans, contained a fatal flaw. It allowed slavery of people convicted of a crime, i.e. prisoners, although not of ownership over them (chattel slavery).

Almost immediately, states, especially in the former Confederacy, began passing vagrancy laws to round up ex-slaves and sell their labour. This was curtailed in the period of Radical Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War, which featured reforms to extend rights to African Americans in the former slave states.

Jim Crow

But it emerged full-blown in the counter-revolution to the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction that established the racist Jim Crow system in the South. White rule created a huge economic sector based on unfree Black labour. Examples included the prison chain gangs at the notorious Parchman Farm in Mississippi, as well as in contract labour, where private firms worked Black prisoners into the grave.

Prison slave labour was also implemented in the rest of the country, although not as violently as in the Jim Crow South.

The Black movement in the 1960s and ’70s overthrew the Jim Crow system, but prison slave labour has continued throughout the country.

The current prisoner protests must be seen as a part of the labour movement, whose employment as slaves lowers the wages and conditions of the whole working class.

White prisoners are also employed as slaves in work inside the prisons as well as outside contract work, but 60% of prisoners are African American or Latino, with 38% of them Black.

Given the whole history of unfree Black labour from chattel slavery to the present, it isn’t surprising that reports suggest Blacks have taken the lead in these multiracial actions.

Some work performed by prisoners in many institutions isn’t paid at all — it is outright slavery. In other prisons, pitiful “wage” is paid — barely covering up the slave conditions.

One prisoner, for instance, reports: “Because I know how to strip floors, wax them, take the gum up off floor, I stared doing that. At 16 cents an hour.”

Another said: “I started out as a line server, serving food for breakfast and dinner. Then I became a dishwasher and maintenance in the kitchen. It paid 13 cents an hour. I worked and made $20 a month, and they [prison authorities] took 55% of that for restitution [for food etc.]”

For some prisoners, the “pay” can be up to $2 an hour, but some of that is taken back for “restitution”.

Further demands

There are nine further demands prisoners are raising. These centre on prison conditions and prisoner rights. One of these is the right to vote. Only two states, Vermont and Maine allow prisoners to vote — but given there are 2.8 million prisoners nationally, that’s a large number of disenfranchised citizens.

It stands in contrast to Canada and 14 European countries where prisoners can vote and 16 more where some can vote.

Four states — Iowa, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia — go further and permanently deny felons the vote, even after their release. Six others do the same for some felons. Others deny parolees the franchise.

Given that most prisoners are African American or Latinos, this denial of their right to vote is part and parcel of racist laws progressively whittling down voting rights for racial minorities won by the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and ’60s.

Part of the background is the sheer size of the prison population in the US The statistics are well known. With 5% of the world’s population, the US has 25% of the world’s prisoners. This is the result of a deliberate policy of the ruling capitalist class, carried out by both parties of big business. From 1970 to 2005, the prison population rose 700%, and remains high today.

‘War on Drugs’

A major tool used is the phony “War on Drugs”. Begun by Republican, with the Nixon administration seeking to target Black communities to undermine the Black Power movement, it was sharply intensified under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Under Clinton, there was an acceleration of the rate of arrests and convictions for drug offenses. This included for simple possession and other non-violent “crimes”. During his administration, a law was passed restricting the rights of prisoners to seek relief from their mistreatment through the courts. One of the demands in the current strike is to repeal that law.

In 1996, Hillary Clinton coined the phrase “super-predators”, which targeted young Black men who were allegedly preying on white people. In the 2016 election campaign, she defended the phrase when targeted by vocal Black Lives Matter protesters.

The Bill Clinton administration’s “law and order” campaign involved targeting a highly disproportionate number of Blacks. It was the “New Jim Crow”, a new form of the national oppression of African Americans, a new caste system, explained by Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book of that title.

Once released, the onus of being an ex-felon coupled with institutionalised racism means that it is difficult for Black ex-prisoners to find meaningful employment. This often leads to their being re-imprisoned, permanently caught up in the system.

Retaliation

It is difficult to obtain the full information about the strike. Prison authorities deny that anything is happening in their prisons, or punish leaders in ways that make it hard to communicate with the outside.

Amani Sawari is a spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a network of prisoners who studied the law while inside and are helping to organise the strike. She is now out of jail and reports on the retaliation against the strikers.

She has raised the example of two strike leaders who have been placed in solitary confinement, Jason Walker and Keith “Malik” Washington.

“Comrade Malik hasn’t been allowed to take showers,” Sawari said. “They are hunger-striking. Jason Walker hasn’t been allowed to have toilet paper, towels or have access to taking a shower or having clean clothes, in retaliation to his organising of the strike in Texas.”

She says Malik was sent into solitary confinement — an internationally recognised form of torture — in a preemptive move on August 15. “He’s in a concrete cell that’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Texas … He’s only escorted out in handcuffs. He’s not allowed to have easy communications with the outside.”

Walker wrote an article about the conditions in Texas prisons. Sawari said: “After that article was written, he was moved to solitary confinement. But even in groups, like in South Carolina, prisoners in McCormick [prison] have been having daily strip searches done on them since August 20, the day before the the strike began.

“Also, David Easley and James Ward, they are in Ohio [state prison], Toledo’s correctional facility, are not allowed to have contact with the outside. They’re also in solitary confinement.

“So we can see that retaliation is happening against individual organisers in the beginning. And now we’re seeing when inmates are standing up and choosing to strike, they are moved to solitary to try to keep prisoners from joining.

“But this is spreading the fire. Prisoners know that this is a climate where they can actually stand up and feel supported. There have been solidarity marches and rallies in at least 21 cities across the country.”

These brave men and women taking action in the face of retaliation deserve our support. We must begin to educate the labour movement that prisoners are part of the working class — and it is in the interests of all workers to come to their defence.