Prison Focus Issue 53
Read at August 19, 2017 San Jose sister march for the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March
First, I’d like to say, on behalf of the Oakland Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, how honored we are to be here with you all today and standing up on behalf of the millions of people caught up in the prison or “justice” system and detention facilities within the United States. We’re out here in conjunction with all the people that are marching in DC on this day with the same message. We have a “justice system” that perpetuates the institution of racism in this country through its targeting of the most marginalized communities: people of color, women, and the LGBT community.
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, is a project of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union and is an organization that is now a couple of years old. We have over 1000 prisoners as union members and as many contacts that we communicate with in prisons across the country. As outside members of IWOC our job is to facilitate the formation of inside branches of the Union. Also to publicize and amplify the voices of prisoners as they relay their conditions and their fights for justice on the inside to those of us on the outside.
In my several years in prison I came to realize many things. One of which being that the punitive actions enforced within prisons are designed to break your spirit. From years of solitary confinement, to constant threats against your parole. Also, I realized how greatly the prisons benefitted off the divisions that prisoners create by breaking up into racial gangs, which is typical.
Prisons use arbitrary punishments as a tool to break your spirit and will to fight. Where any perceived infraction of “the program” that they design for you to adhere to, will be swiftly met with severe repercussions that range from: denial of parole, more charges, beatings, and even murder. These are just some of the threats prisoners face when they attempt to confront the system on their own.
Despite this, while I was in prison there were several collective actions that we prisoners took. They were all relatively spontaneous though and a reaction to an injustice like not receiving commissary one week, so we all refused to lock down after dinner. Or when they refused to let my 8-man cell out for rec time and we decided to flood the whole cell block. Historically prisoners have taken collective action to better their conditions or to fight back. Prison officials always responded the same way by acting as if they would listen and heed our grievances, but they only did that to get us back in our cells or stop what we were doing. Once all prisoners are locked up again and they feel they have the situation under control they try to single out and identify the “leaders” and use them as an example through severe punishment.
Prisons only function because prisoners go to their prison jobs which predominately are jobs that keep the facilities running from laundry and maintenance, to food production and assembling products for the state or other facilities to use. The IWW has always advocated that the working classes greatest strength is at the point of production. Thousands of prisoners across the country proved this fact by shutting down 24 prisons across the country last year on September 9th which coincided with the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising. It was the largest coordinated action by prisoners in US history, led by leaders of the Free Alabama movement, free Ohio movement, and IWOC. IWOC estimates at least 57,000 prisoners participated or were locked down to prevent their participation.
Strike leaders produced a document titled, “Let the crops rot in the fields” in the lead up to the prison strike last year, which equated the institutionalization of slavery with the “exception clause” of the 13th amendment. So as slaves were forced to harvest crops by ‘letting the crops rot in the fields’ they meant “don’t go to work” and don’t prop up these institutions of our confinement. That document laid it out in real terms. Whereas during chattel slavery the land owner collected the profits and administered the punishments.
After the Civil War and with the addition of the 13th amendment they codified slavery into law. Armed vigilante groups, which evolved and became the police as we know them today, would capture freed slaves on fabricated or wholly made up charges just to return them to the plantations they had supposedly just been freed from, only now they weren’t plantations. They were called prisons and administered by the state. That was the back room deal made between northern industrialists and southern landowners so they didn’t lose their workforce. The landowner became the warden and the overseer became the guard.
While the majority of prison jobs are to keep the facilities operating, we’ve increasingly seen large corporations getting into the prison game after seeing the potential profit margins they can secure with a workforce to which they pay pennies and in some states don’t pay anything, for the work they do. We’re talking about major corporations like Bank of America, Exxon, Mobil and McDonalds. AT&T has been outsourcing their unionized workforce since the 90’s not to Mexico, not to India, but right here in the U.S., to prisoners.
One of our leaders, Kinetic Justice, co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, broke it down like this: there is a reason they don’t offer these jobs that they do in prisons, to people on the outside in those most affected marginalized communities. It’s because they’ve realized these communities are more easily controlled inside prisons. Kinetic’s observation on control is that we are now in an age of increasing “surplus” populations and the government has been using prisons as their solution to that problem.
A notable theorist recently pointed out that “The purpose of prison is not to reap profits from people’s labor, but to warehouse those for whom no profit-making work exists.”
We must see prison, juvenile halls, and immigrant detention centers for exactly what they are, which is a part of the institution of racism in this country and a vital component of the carceral state.
So, with that being said, while we support this effort at reform as it was called for by prisoners, we also see it as only one strategy in the ongoing war against prisons. Though we support reform efforts like this when called for by prisoners, at the end of the day we are prison abolitionists. We are revolutionaries. Through our mutual political education classes and our collective analysis, we recognize that the prison and detention centers are used as a weapon to continue to subjugate Black and Brown people and women, and to continue to perpetuate the institution of racism in this country.
While we’re able to bop white supremacists in the head when they try to rally, combating racism as its codified in the “justice system” will require the mutual aid and support of all of us, on the outside, by supplying material support when it’s needed, and also by amplifying, and publicizing the voices of all of our brothers and sisters being held in prisons and detention centers, and attempting to fight back collectively. Same goes for the over 5 million people on some type of monitoring e.g. probation, house arrest etc. They need our support and solidarity as well.
While we’re here today in solidarity with you all and the fight to repeal the “exclusion clause” of the 13th amendment, let me conclude with this. Even if the “exception clause” is repealed, The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee will continue communicating and organizing with prisoners. We’ll continue building inside union branches and we’ll continue hitting the streets loud and hard when our incarcerated members call on us to. We’ll continue in our work until every single prison, every immigrant detention center, and every juvenile hall in this country is completely empty.