We’re Only Gonna Get Louder: An Interview with a Prison Resistance Movement Insider
The largest U.S. prison strike in history is in its third week and yet we’ve heard very little about it from the mainstream media. Since September 9, prisoners nationwide have been engaged in work stoppage and hunger strikes. As of last week it was reported that there are at least 20 confirmed prisons on strike in 11 states. That list is expected to grow in the coming weeks and organizers are able to confirm activity in prisons that have been placed on lockdown and no communication in or out is currently being allowed, including here in Texas.
These protests are born out of system-wide inhumane living conditions, such as long term solitary confinement, severe overcrowding, and a call to question around the 13th Amendment that bands slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” At a time when we as a society are beginning to really look at and question the criminal justice system as a whole, these strikes are calling some much needed attention to a broken system that is built on and still thrives on racism. When people say “end prison slavery now,” the imagery it incites is rather appropriate when you take into account the conditions in which prisoners in the U.S. are legally forced into labor for no pay in inhumane living conditions.
Free Press Houston conducted an interview with a currently incarcerated prisoner who is on strike in South Carolina. For the protection of the prisoner who was communicating with us on a smuggled cell phone, we will refer to him using the alias Derek Shabazz.
Free Press Houston: What form is the strike taking in your unit? (Hunger strike, work strike, etc.?)
Derek Shabazz: We made an announcement here in the Carolina state prison system for unity on a work strike. This means no working. Our only exception was for educational and vocational classes that are labeled as work jobs by the prisons.
FPH: How many people are striking in your unit?
DS: Strikers are dispersed at many prisons throughout the state. You will find that many strikers confined in the harshest prisons are the majority participating. We also consider the ones that have refused and continue to refuse to work long before the strike was called as participating and also those in solidarity from max units. Specifically at my prison I would estimate at least 10 to 40 [prisoners] in every unit are on strike.
FPH: How did you personally get involved in the strike? And why are you and others on strike?
DS: Another Comrade and I actually found out about the strike from IWOC/IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] social media and written correspondence and after learning of the Freedom Movement members’ position, we immediately presented it to our “Jailhouse Lawyers Speak Committee” for input. Once it was agreed to be in line with our local and national agenda as jailhouse lawyers, I began to promote it where I’m at. South Carolina was rather late in the know, but once word started spreading, it was on.
Nationally, it’s a strike to abolish slavery. This enslavement is codified in the U.S. Constitutional 13th Amendment of 1865, an amendment that is viewed as a compromise between the North and South, which allowed slavery to be continued by being transferred from the plantation owners to states and government prison models. Through the criminal justice system, slavery found its most vulnerable citizens and continued the human exploitation routine of capitalists. Since the inception of this amendment, slave catchers were given badges, then sent to catch prisoners for work on government, state, or private projects. People are so miseducated or numb to the 13th Amendment that they have no clue that it legalized slavery.
Today, we have some that estimate an $80 billion industry. Other estimates calculate up to a trillion. Companies are in hog heaven off the free labor exploits in prisons across America. As prisoners, we are saying enough is enough, time to pay fair wages. Time to end the reign of companies profiting from criminalized statutes that their lobbying teams usually create and endorse for stiffer and longer sentencing. Let’s not forget they can’t profit if there are no bodies in the cells of America to profit from.
FPH: What are your demands? And what would you like to see come out of this collective action?
DS: The beauty about this strike, and what cannot be overstated, is the unity of prisoners to abolish prison slavery as is legalized in the U.S. Constitutional 13th Amendment. It’s strange how the roosters do come home to roost. When you build an entire nation up on deception in order to end a war, that same deception is now placing the country back in similar parallels pre-Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. We see this through the unrest throughout the country, as it all can be linked back to one common thread: the so-called criminal justice system. A system that finds its core values in the 13th Amendment. Outside of the national call to abolish or amend the 13th Amendment, there are other demands that are specific to different states, too numerous to list off. In summation, they evolve around compensation for work performed, living conditions improvements that are fit for humans, competent medical systems, parole standards for releasing, sentencing reforms, and nutritional food selections. Prisoners in South Carolina released a similar set of demands.
From this collective action, we hope some specific state requested demands will be met. Nationally it is to demonstrate for the nation and world that those enslaved will no longer go along in their own enslavement. We hope this gets the world to pay attention to what America has going on in her own back yard. And how its in everyone’s face, codified in the supreme law of American Constitution. We want to see this movement continue to grow and become more intense in its efforts to abolish slavery once and for all. As you all find collective unity on the outside, back here in the American gulags we prisoners will be strengthening the Prison Resistance Movement by forming more collectives to challenge and expose the PIC [Prison Industrial Complex].
FPH: What do you want the outside world to know about prison conditions and the strike in general?
DS: Prisoners are being forced to subsist on non-nutrient foods that are soy-based. Meats are 95 percent processed. Can you imagine how many years of life expectancy are cut from someone’s life based on such consistent diets for years? Medical treatments are operated by private for profit corporations. That means they take whatever short cuts can be made without flat out killing you. The unspoken policy is to do just enough to keep them functioning, not to actually treat or cure, which is why preventable deaths are so prevalent amongst prisoners that are seen and treated by prison medical teams. Many common complaints heard within the nation’s prisons are the rats and roach infestations, all in the foods served and living quarters. Mold is rampant. If these were public institutions, health inspectors would have shut them down long ago. So-called correctional officers abuse of prisoners are still rampant and unchecked. There is a code of silence and vindictiveness amongst the ranks of so-called correctional officers that prisoners view as deadly and a threat to any productive progress in this movement. Their very livelihood depends on prisoners filling beds and being dehumanized. To speak on the dehumanization, this process significantly impacts the prisoners psyche and upon release causes many of the failures and returns of prisoners. We want people to know we are not calling for any violence by this strike. Instead we are calling for peaceful resistance to demand the abolishment of the 13th Amendment legalization of slavery. We will no longer comply with the states or government in this dehumanization process. We demand to be treated like humans with rights. Private corporations, if you want us to work for you, it’s time to pay fair wages. States and government, if you want us to work for you, it’s time to pay fair wages. Slavery is dead to us now. The Prison Resistance Movement will continue to educate other prisoners into noncompliance. We are not shutting up. We’re only gonna get louder.
FPH: How can people support your efforts?
DS: By galvanizing and getting behind the ongoing initiative to abolish the 13th Amendment. Not allowing the issue to die out in a quite storm. Support or continue to support inside resisting prisoners. It is the prisoners that are on the front lines, being hit directly by brutal underhanded tactics of prison officials to suppress the strike. For many, like myself, this is a blow against capitalism. Private interest is being hit hard. We should expect new propaganda from the companies for support to maintain the status quo. We, too, must be prepared to create and promote our own propaganda to dismantle. We must expose private corporations that exploit prison labor and rage against them. You all out there must build coalitions with all other willing organizations to accomplish these ends and keep the bonds tied with us behind enemy lines, constantly reinforcing our collective efforts. Together we will bring the beast to its knees. There is a gathering storm of millions of people to take our issues directly to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Join these efforts.