Categorized | Viewpoints

Prison strike highlights need for visibility , reform

From Aug. 21 to Sept. 9, a nationwide prison strike occurred across federal prisons, state prisons, immigrant detention centers and local jails in the United States. In at least 17 states, prisoners were boycotting facilities that generate profit for prisons, striking against performing prison labor, encouraging consumer boycotts against companies that exploit prison labor and in some cases even refusing to eat in order to call attention to the horrific conditions of incarceration.

The strike was organized in response to April’s events in Lee Correctional Center in  South Carolina, where seven people lost their lives in a riot that was provoked and allowed to continue by prison staff. The strike held 10 demands: 1) improvements to prison conditions, 2) state minimum wage compensation for all prison labor, 3) allowing the incarcerated a channel to voice violations of rights, 4) an end to life sentences without parole, 5) an end to racial overcharging, over-sentencing and parole denials, 6) an end to gang enhancement laws, 7) universal access to rehabilitation for violent offenders, 8) increased funding for rehabilitation services in state prisons, 9) reinstatement of Pell grants for the incarcerated and most critically, 10) restoring voting rights to all currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.

In retaliation to participating in the strike, prisoners faced punishments such as the suspension of all recreation, having their mail denied, being threatened with or placed into solitary confinement and, as one prisoner reported, even having their windows painted black so they couldn’t tell if it was night or day. Some incarcerated activists like Kevin Rashid Johnson were erratically transferred from prison to prison so they couldn’t organize or educate fellow strikers.

Why haven’t we been hearing more about this?

On a large scale, it’s because incarceration is a necessary tool of carceral capitalism — because a threat to incarceration is a threat to the institutions that benefit from it, institutions that are deeply connected to our media and our government.

On a more individual scale, though, it’s just incredibly easy for us to abandon the concerns of people who are invisible to most of the public — invisible not by accident but by design. Because the incarcerated are so harshly separated from the rest of our society and in many ways still excluded from it upon re-entry, it’s less burdensome to just take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach.

Beyond invisibility, I see many people putting less stake in carceral injustices because of the idea that those who are “criminal” are less deserving of justice. They broke the law, this mindset goes, so they made their own beds. Maybe it’s sad, but shouldn’t they have just not gone to prison if they didn’t want this treatment?

To take that type of stance is to be willfully ignorant and dismissive of staggering amounts of evidence proving the inequity and inaccuracy of our criminal legal system.

The injustices of the system are so pervasive that there is no possible way for me to concisely summarize them here —Michelle Alexander spends the entirety of her book “The New Jim Crow” detailing the countless ways our carceral system functions in a way that is not just comparable to racial slavery but rather the uninterrupted continuation of it. From plea bargains to quotas to mandatory minimums, you do not have to look far to see the extent to which our carceral system imprisons the innocent, criminalizes offenses that should not be criminal (i.e., homelessness, mental illness and drug charges) and perpetuates a vicious cycle of recidivism instead of rehabilitation. The system is unfair, ineffective and unequal.

More important than whether we knew about this recent strike is whether we understand the reasons that prompted it. Many of us don’t, and we have to start going out of our way to correct for their neglect in media spotlights and in national conversations.

When we talk about election intervention as the nation dissolves into hysterics over Russia, we should also be talking about the more than six million Americans who are permanently legally barred from voting because of felony records, which encompasses over 7.4  percent of the adult black population, compared to roughly one percent of the adult white population. When we talk about #metoo, we must also be talking about the estimated 70,000 prisoners who experience sexual assault while incarcerated in a given year with little to no accountability for the assailants, who are frequently employees of the facility. When we talk about living wages, we must also be talking about prison laborers — like those in the widely circulated story this summer of incarcerated youth who were paid only $1 an hour to fight fires in California. When we talk about freedom of speech, we must also be talking about incarcerated activists like Johnson who are violently punished for speaking out.

There are direct actions we can take. We can write letters to those behind bars, we can develop relationships with incarcerated people our age through the Inside/Outside course offered at Wooster, we can support strikes and boycotts when they occur and, as then students Jahqwahn Watson ’17, Emerald  Rutledge ’17 and Chadwick Smith ’17 did a few years ago, successfully advocate for institutions like our own college to divest from private prisons.

But above all, we (especially those of us with the racial and economic privileges to be personally detached from the issue) need to be constantly educating ourselves on the current reality and working to shift our individual and cultural mindsets on what justice looks like, who deserves it and who incarceration really serves. We need to start conceiving of not just a world with “better” incarceration –—there is no good incarceration –— and start conceiving of a world without incarceration.

Robyn Newcomb, a Viewpoints Editor for the Voice, can be reached for comment at


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