“Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit), and I know you got to disturb the peace if you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in.”
— Aretha Franklin, Jet magazine, December 1970, on offering to pay bail for jailed activist Angela Davis.
I was home from college on a break when the prisoners’ uprising in Attica began on September 9, 1971.
I watched news footage on TV with my mother. We noticed that a lot of the faces of prisoners in photos taken on the prison “yard” were Black. My mother, who was not usually given to comments about racial issues, shook her head and said simply, “They just don’t want our men to succeed.” She didn’t have to explain who “they” were; those who comprised what was then termed “the white power structure,” institutional racism designed to ensure that we people of color stay in our “place.”
Forty-seven years and a new century later, not much has changed for Black people and other people of color in prisons. According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, as of July, Black prisoners, men and women, number 69,244, or 37% of the prison population, which is much higher than the percentage of Black people in the U.S., 12.2% (U.S. Census, 2010). Latinx are 59,683 of prison inmates, or 32.5%, while comprising 16.3% of the U.S. Native Americans number 5.2 million in the U.S., or 1.7%, but 2.3% of prisoners, or 4,199. U.S. Whites number 106,913 or 58.3% of prisoners and 72.$% of the U.S.
A majority of prisoners, 46.1%, are incarcerated on drug offenses. Research conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that Black prisoners, particularly Black men, are given sentences that are 20% longer than whites, primarily for drug offenses. More Black people than white are arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
Longer sentences for other crimes, not just those involving drugs, and more sentences of life without parole, have resulted in prisons being overcrowded, worsening living conditions and tensions within prisons.
Prisoners are exploited as a source of “free” or “slave” labor. Prison inmates are not covered by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery but did not apply to prisoners. It means that prisoners working in prisons or jobs for non-prison concerns can be paid less than the minimum wage. Heather Ann Thompson, who wrote a book about the Attica uprising, recently told NPR that prisoners barely earn 4 to twenty cents on the dollar.
Galvanized by a 2016 prison strike, and violence this April in the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina which occurred when guards placed rival gangs in the same area, all prisoners united to launch a national strike. It began on August 21, the date 47 years ago when prison activist, Black Panther leader and author George Jackson was shot and killed by a guard in San Quentin, and the 47th anniversary of the Attica uprising on September 9. Prisoners in 17 states plan work stoppages and civil disobedience until their list of 10 demands is met.
The demands include restoring the right to vote for all prisoners; an end to “racial overcharging, over-sentencing and parole denials of Black and brown humans”, and an immediate end to “prison slavery . . . All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
It has been difficult for strike supporters on the outside to access accurate information on how many prisoners are participating in the strike. It was organized through word of mouth, social media and use of cell phones. But a news release on August 22 from a strike participant said that prisoners in North Carolina, California, Georgia, South Carolina and Washington are participating.
Additionally, sixty undocumented immigrants detained in the Tacoma, Washington U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center began a hunger strike last week in solidarity with the national prison strike.
The most up-to-date source of information is the strike website, https://incarceratedworkers.org has posted the complete list of the demands, news releases, and suggested strike support actions. Remember the this Labor Day weekend, and consider what you can do to bring about criminal justice reform.