The movement against “modern day slavery”


An armed California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer at San Quentin State Prison’s death row on August 15, 2016 in San Quentin, California. PHOTO/Justin Sullivan/Getty

American prisons are barbaric. The national prisoners’ strike is a righteous response to those horrendous conditions.

On August 21, forty-seven years after the assassination of key movement organizer and theoretician George Jackson, prisoners across the country once again began mobilizing. Ranging from sit-ins to work stoppages, boycotts to hunger strikes, their actions have followed a nationwide call for sentencing reform, improved living conditions, greater access to rehabilitative programming, and an end to what strike organizers call “modern day slavery.”

In the weeks leading up to the start of the strike, women and men held in prisons, jails, and immigration-detention facilities in at least seventeen states had confirmed their participation, a number that is sure to rise as news of the strike continues to spread. Such a high level of involvement in this strike suggests not simply the continuation of, but also a potential upsurge in a prison movement that, as an informational video has put it, is “self-organized, independent, and fighting against the brutality of the prison system.”

Movement History, Making History

Initiated by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a collective of those providing legal aid and support to other prisoners, this year’s strike highlights the movement’s growing sophistication. JLS, which first announced the strike via Twitter, intentionally picked dates that bridge the anniversary of Jackson’s killing with the start of the 1971 Attica prison rebellion on September 9.

Previous national and statewide protests have demonstrated a similar political consciousness, indicative of organizers seeking to cultivate a sense of their movement’s place in history. The 2016 nationwide strike began on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica rebellion (September 9), the 2018 #OperationPush strikes in Florida coincided with Martin Luther King Jr day (January 15), and the subsequent call for outside supporters to demonstrate fell on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Africans in Texas following the end of the Civil War.

These recent actions have been just a few of the coordinated protests that have broken out in the years since the 2010 work strikes throughout prisons in Georgia as well as the 2011 and 2013 Pelican Bay hunger strikes. Building on the lessons drawn from these and other protests, this national call prescribes a set of actions to take and a three-week window of time during which to take them, in order to deny prison officials the opportunity to preemptively lock down their prisons in anticipation of a one-day refusal to work.

Reflecting a growing operational flexibility, the national call also encourages those taking action to press concerns specific to their institutions, while also promoting a common set of ten demands. These demands include an end to felony disenfranchisement, poor prison conditions, racist overcharging, and excessive sentencing, low-wage — or in some instances, no-wage — prison work policies, and repressive federal legislation like the 1996 Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a law designed to curtail the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits for violation of their constitutional rights.

“Most of the demands are not actionable items that prison authorities are able to grant,” notes a zine promoting the strike. “The goal is not to hold out and win negotiations with officials, but to last those 19 days and punch the issue to the top of the political consciousness and agenda.”

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