Prisoners face retaliation after multi-state strike

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Prison bars
Source: Thomas Hawk.

Between August 21 and September 9, 2018, prisoners across 17 states held a multifaceted strike over 10 demands, including the right of prisoners to vote, reforms to the penal and legal systems, and an end to prison slavery – against forced labor and for a prevailing wage. The strikers faced a difficult organizing terrain: surveillance and suppression by penal officials, reversals of prisoners’ civil rights during the 1990s, the declining standard of life caused by overcrowding and budget cuts, deadly violence spurred by guards, and dangerous working conditions. ¹

The National Lawyers Guild Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network (NLG-PLAN) received affidavits from prisoners in 12 states on prison repression in the lead-up and aftermath of the strike. These reports give “compelling indications of national coordination of prison tactics” used against “thousands of prisoners without evidence or cause.” These tactics include pre-emptively locking down prisons; and revoking visitation rights of, placing into segregation, or transferring perceived strike organizers. ²

Multiple prisons used the strike as pretense to place jailhouse lawyers in solitary confinement (jailhouse lawyers are prisoners without formal legal training who help other prisoners navigate the legal system). Prisoners also reported physical abuse by prison staff, destruction of personal and legal property, and obstruction to formal grievance procedures. NLG-PLAN is mounting legal responses to these abuses. ²

During the strike, Pennsylvania prisons implemented new indefinite restrictions on prisoner correspondence and access to books, citing dubious claims of staff exposure to “synthetic cannabinoids.” ³

As with any strike movement, outside support is important for continued success. Thus, prisoners’ collective Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a core organizer of the strike, has established the Millions for Prisoners’ Human Rights Coalition. The coalition “aims to include 400+ groups and organizations that endorsed the National Prison Strike as well as individuals who’ve signed on in solidarity with prisoners” and is “committed to the achievement of all of prisoners’ demands beyond the strike dates.”

The capitalist economy is based on exploitation and is structurally unable to provide for everyone. Angela Davis wrote, “The prison has become a black hole into which the detritus of contemporary capitalism is deposited. Mass imprisonment generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.”

Since the free-world labor movement opposes the logic of austerity, and faces the increasing threat of the far right, it finds itself objectively aligned with the prisoners’ (or incarcerated workers’) movement. Conversely, as labor challenges the economic roots of mass incarceration, it will increasingly come into conflict with the repressive arms of the capitalist state, like the criminal-legal system. Prison strikes are therefore an important part of the struggle against exploitation and oppression, for a democratic, socialist economy and a restorative justice system.


  1. Willis, Jack, and Luke Eckenrod. “Prison Strike Against Modern-Day Slavery, Racist Mass Incarceration Is Largest in US History.” Socialist Alternative. August 29, 2018. ^
  2. DE-NJ NLG Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network (PLAN) Mounts Legal Responses to Widespread Reports of Prisoner Abuses in the Aftermath of the 2018 National Prison Strike.” National Lawyers Guild. September 20, 2018. ^ ^
  3. Melamed, Samantha. “Pa. Prisons Spend $15M after Guards Were Sickened by K2. But What If It Was Just in Their Heads?Philadelphia Inquirer. September 07, 2018. ^
  4. Sawari, Amani, Jared Ware, and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) National Media Subcommittee. “Reports of National Prison Strike Retaliation and Repression Slowly Manage to Emerge.” San Francisco Bay View. October 16, 2018. ^
  5. Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 16. ^