By: Alice Speri
THE LARGEST PRISON strike in U.S. history has been going on for nearly a week, but there’s a good chance you haven’t heard about it. For months, inmates at dozens of prisons across the country have been organizing through a network of smuggled cellphones, social media pages, and the support of allies on the outside. The effort culminated in a mass refusal to report to prison jobs on September 9, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising.
“This is a call to action against slavery in America,” organizers wrote in an announcement that for weeks circulated inside and outside prisons nationwide, and that sums up the strikers’ primary demand: an end to free prison labor. “Forty-five years after Attica, the waves of change are returning to America’s prisons. This September we hope to coordinate and generalize these protests, to build them into a single tidal shift that the American prison system cannot ignore or withstand.”
Since Friday, details on the strike’s success have trickled out of prisons with some difficulty, but organizers and supporters have no doubt the scale of the action is unprecedented, though their assessment is difficult to verify and some corrections departments denied reports of strike-related activities in their states.
Prisoners in 24 states and 40 to 50 prisons pledged to join the strike, and as of Tuesday, prisoners in at least 11 states and 20 prisons continued the protest, according to outside supporters in Alabama. Tactics and specific demands varied locally, with some prisoners reportedly staging hunger strikes, and detainees in Florida protesting and destroying prison property ahead of the planned strike date.
“There are probably 20,000 prisoners on strike right now, at least, which is the biggest prison strike in history, but the information is really sketchy and spotty,” said Ben Turk, who works on “in-reach” to prisons for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World union helping to coordinate the inmate-led initiative from the outside.
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