Over the past 30 days, we have been fed lots of information about current events affecting Black America: Kaepernick’s Nike ad and the MAGA backlash, the brother in Texas who was killed in his home by an off-duty police officer who allegedly mistook his apartment for hers, Cardi B’s fight with a member of Nicki Minaj’s entourage, Serena Williams’ conflict with the referee at the U.S. Open, and of course, the Queen’s homegoing and all the antics that ensued during the mega-service.
While all of these things were taking place, there was a huge prison strike involving incarcerated people in at least 16 states plus one Canadian province.
The protest started August 21 and officially lasted until September 9, although prisoners at individual facilities could go longer or shorter based on their specific needs and conditions. Tactics included refusal to work, hunger strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts (asking family and friends outside not to send money into the prison system on their behalf).
Strike organizers issued ten demands, including humane treatment of prisoners, restoration of voting rights to ex-felons, increased access to rehabilitation, fair market wages vs. prison pay and the elimination of policies and laws that lengthen sentences and shut down prisoners’ ability to seek justice against abuses committed by prison staff.
NATIONAL PRISON STRIKE AUGUST 21-SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018 pic.twitter.com/Mzbb4e96yp
— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak #August21 (@JailLawSpeak) April 24, 2018
Did news of this strike go viral in your news feed? It didn’t in mine. I’d bet most of us didn’t even know it happened.
Black Lives Matter protests rightfully focus on the lethal effects of police encounters with black folks, especially when the use of force seems excessive and unnecessary. However, there are so many other encounters between black people of all ages and police that do not end in death. Surely we have witnessed and even felt the impact of loved ones being separated for long periods of time, the strain it places on their children and other relatives who are left behind. Overall, though, I think a lot of black folks feel ambivalent about advocating for prisoners’ rights.
Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s Netflix infuriating documentary 13th may temporarily shock us with evidence of just how racially skewed America’s criminal justice and incarceration policies are. We may wring our hands or flex on social media when confronted with the prison-industrial complex: the connection between private prisons and increased convictions, use of prison labor by a surprising number of corporations to make some of our favorite products at a cheaper rate.
But our communities have been scarred by crime and violence for decades now. We know that education and social programs are often underfunded in our communities, and that poverty, miseducation and lack of opportunity plays a role in the choices some of our folks make. But it is still hard to reconcile the obstacles with the harmful outcomes of the negative choices, especially if we have managed to avoid those pitfalls ourselves.
There are a number of community-based organizations working to address criminal justice issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, voting rights after time served, “ban the box” to reduce employment discrimination against ex-convicts, sentencing reform and even bail reform, which recently resulted in the abolition of the cash bail system in California.
How much popular support do they receive though? Not much because we want to feel safe, and many of us are conditioned to see prison as an imperfect solution.
Both the mainstream media and the word on the street feed us horror stories of murders, assaults, robberies and thefts, fueled in part by gangs and less organized street crews that deal in drugs, guns, and other illegal activities. Very few people feel empathy for anyone who would shoot into a crowd and hit a kid or steal from a hardworking adult who is barely making ends meet.
The horror stories make it easy to forget about the millions of people who are not in jail for violent crimes, including the black lives that make up nearly 40 percent of America’s prison population, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, even though we are just over 13 percent of the national population. I definitely grew up among folks at school, in church, and at family and community gatherings who would say things like “jail isn’t supposed to be a nice place”; “they’re not locking people up for no reason”; and “you know the system is racist, so don’t give them a reason to catch you.”
We think we know what it’s like behind bars because we get plenty of Hollywood versions: Beyond Scared Straight, Lockup, Orange Is the New Black, Oz. But we do not see the real prison conditions firsthand – the overcrowding that caused the Supreme Court to declare incarceration in California “cruel and unusual punishment” and to order the release of 30,000 prisoners, or the lawlessness and mismanagement that caused a federal judge to place Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans under a consent decree in 2013, just to name a few examples.
It’s no wonder that America’s prison system is often called modern-day slavery.
It is a well-known fact that the “land of the free” leads the world in locking up its citizens. According to figures from World Prison Brief, we beat China in terms of sheer numbers of prisoners (even though they have more than 4 times our population), and we beat El Salvador if you compare the percentage of prisoners to the total population.
Under Trump and his current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, private prisons have been getting extra support while reform measures like consent degrees may be targeted and weakened.
Organizers of the recent strike appealed to the public for support, recognizing that they need us on the outside to push lawmakers and public officials so their demands can be taken seriously and so they will have a measure of protection from retaliation by prison officials.
I didn’t write about this topic to shame anyone, because I haven’t been actively involved in the prisoners’ rights movement either. I just wonder how much longer any of us can continue to look the other way while the same government that protects and defends law enforcement officers who kill black citizens in the pettiest of encounters turns around and snatches up so many of our folks and after many years and millions of dollars in private profit, sends them back into our communities, mentally institutionalized, unskilled, and hard to employ?
Please note: Virginia and North Carolina corrections departments are evacuating some prisoners in the hurricane’s path. South Carolina officials continue to refuses prisoner evacuations, as landfall draws nearer.