7 September 2018

Protesting Hellish Conditions

Support Prisoners Strike!

SEPTEMBER 2—For the last two weeks, prisoners across the country have courageously carried out work stoppages, hunger strikes and commissary boycotts to protest their unspeakable conditions—brutalization by prison guards, massive overcrowding and exploitation as virtual slave labor. Protests have occurred in at least eleven states, and organizers report that prisoners in six more states have pledged to join. At the federal immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Washington, some 200 detainees went on hunger strike to demand the closure of I.C.E. detention centers and to show solidarity with the prison protests. The British Guardian (31 August) reported that prison strike organizers have been met with “swift and vicious reprisals,” thrown into solitary, stripped of communication privileges and transferred to distant prisons.

The strike began on August 21 and is due to continue until September 9. August 21 marks the anniversary of both the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner and the 1971 assassination of Black Panther Party activist George Jackson by guards in California’s San Quentin prison. Jackson was targeted for his role in organizing black, Latino and white prisoners and breaking down hostility between them. September 9 commemorates the beginning of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, which was drowned in blood on orders of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. The Attica prisoners—black, Puerto Rican and white—defiantly declared, “We are men! We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such” (see “Remember Attica,” WV No. 1103, 13 January 2017).

In his powerful prison letters, George Jackson wrote: “Black men born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison” (Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson [1970]). Since that time, the prison population has grown sixfold to more than two million people, one-third of them black. The mass incarceration over the last few decades is largely a product of the racist “war on drugs” carried out by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Having condemned the mass of black and Latino youth to desperate poverty, the U.S. rulers whipped up hysteria over ghetto “superpredators”—to be gunned down by trigger-happy cops or be packed off to prison by the courts, with no sentence too lengthy. Spending for prison libraries has been slashed and access to education axed. Solitary confinement, a form of torture, has grown explosively, particularly for those tagged as “gang members.”

The U.S. prison system is the concentrated expression of the depravity of this racist capitalist society, based on the brutal exploitation of labor and founded on black chattel slavery. Addressing their dehumanizing conditions, the prisoners demand an end to the massive racial discrimination in legal charges, sentencing and granting of parole; an immediate end to laws stiffening sentences because of alleged gang membership; access to rehabilitation programs and restoration of Pell grants, which make attaining a college degree possible; voting rights for all confined citizens and released felons.

Some six million people, disproportionately minorities, have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions, which also disqualify many from access to public housing, food stamps and other benefits. A prior felony also makes finding a job virtually impossible. We call to abolish all laws preventing felons from getting jobs or licenses. Strike down criminal background checks for job applications! Full access to all public services, including public housing! Full voting rights for prisoners and convicted felons!

Against the hated system of coerced prison labor, strikers call for “an immediate end to prison slavery,” demanding they be paid the prevailing wage in their states. The use of prison labor has a long history. After the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that codified emancipation from slavery also contained an exception with which to forge new chains: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Across the South, primarily the black poor were rounded up for concocted “crimes” such as vagrancy or loitering and were “leased out” to pay off exorbitant fines by picking cotton, mining coal, building railroads.

In today’s era of mass incarceration, prisons and detention centers have become sources of ultra-cheap or free labor, generating huge profits for private companies and also filling government coffers. Half of those fighting wildfires in California are prisoners paid a paltry $2 per day plus $1 per hour for this life-threatening work. A Department of Justice brochure touts its “cost-effective labor pool.” Meanwhile, prisoners are forced to pay for personal necessities like toiletries and extortionately priced telephone calls, only to have as much as half their pittance withheld, in some cases to pay “restitution” for the crimes they were convicted of.

The Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee, a non-sectarian, class-struggle legal and social defense organization associated with the SL, have signed a petition endorsing the strikers’ demands and the PDC has donated to their fund. We urge others to do so as well (see below for details). That the strikers have put it all on the line testifies to their courage, but also to their desperation. Isolated and with no social power, the strikers need the support of those outside prison walls—publicity for their demands, financial support and defense against the inevitable crackdown by prison authorities. Fighters for the rights of labor and minorities must demand amnesty for all prison strikers. No reprisals!

It is in the workers’ class interest that the labor movement’s social weight be brought to bear on behalf of the prisoners. Not a few union members have their sons, daughters, mothers or fathers locked up in those dungeons. Together with white, Latino and immigrant workers, black workers, a large component of the unions, have the social power to fight against the capitalist class enemy and its barbaric prison system.

A good start would be to expel prison guards, cops and security guards from the unions. There is hardly a more damning indictment of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats than their recruitment of the capitalists’ armed thugs into unions like AFSCME and the Teamsters. The job of the cops and prison guards is to violently suppress the working class and the ghetto and barrio poor. Yet the craven reformists of Socialist Alternative call in an August 29 article for prison guards to “strike in solidarity with prisoners” to get better working conditions! Better conditions for prison guards means more firepower and a freer hand to brutalize and subjugate prisoners—just what the strikers are protesting! As part of the fight for a new, class-struggle labor leadership, we demand: Cops and prison guards out of the unions!

Along with the military, cops and courts, prisons are a mainstay of the capitalist state, whose purpose is to defend the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie. Abolition of the prison system can only be achieved when the capitalist order with all its machinery of repression is shattered by proletarian socialist revolution. Under the leadership of a revolutionary workers party, the social power of the working class will be mobilized in the fight for a workers America, where the capitalists’ tremendous wealth would be ripped out of their hands and placed at the disposal of the many. Workers rule internationally will begin to lay the material basis for an egalitarian communist society, where there will be no need for prisons or for any other apparatus of state repression.

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1139, 7 September 2018)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.