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“Mountain Prison, known as "Buchenwald” to the Sons of Freedom Sect, is situated five miles northwest of Agassiz, B.C. in the Fraser Valley on a prison reserve of one hundred and fifty-eight acres. The prison itself is situated at the foot of Burnside Mountain overlooking fertile farm land and just north of a section of the Fraser Valley which suffered considerable flood damage in 1948.

Construction of this $300,000 maximum security prison commenced in May 1962 and the prison was in operation by July of the same year. All buildings, and their furnishings are metal on cement slabs. The male and female sections are separated by an eight foot barbed wire fence and the two sections are encircled by an eight-foot mesh fence.

The female section is comprised of a combination washroom and hospital, combination kitchen and mess, and one dormitory; is built to accommodate fifty inmates, and has a population of 13. This section is staffed by 9 matrons and supervised by the male administration.

The male compound consists of four dormitories, combination hospital and washroom, and a combination kitchen and dining area. This section is built to accommodate two hundred inmates, has a population of 86 and a total staff of 22.

All administration buildings, including male and female staff quarters, workshop, two-stall garage, stores, visiting room and officer, are constructed outside the perimeter mesh fence overlooking the prison compound.

Immediately after the prison was opened in July 1962, the staff was confronted with a display of stripping and nude parading followed by a fourteen-day fasting which the rebellious inmates would not even pick up their own bedding. All buildings in both compounds are equipped with old fashioned, pot-bellied, wood-fired stoves. The inmates are expected to cut the wood which is hauled in four foot lengths from the nearby Experimental Farm to be used for heating, cooking, etc. This is resented by the inmates who do not believe they should be doing any work. As a result of their attitude, it has been impossible to introduce a proper inmate training programs and, consequently, the inmates are not provided with newspapers, books, radios, tobacco or sports equipment.

The Freedomites prepare and cook their own meals which consist mainly of vegetables, eggs, cheese, etc., and contain no meat or meat products. The majority of them eat more than is required and consequently are over-weight and flabby. 

They are a communal sect and during visits between the two sections which are limited to one half-hour visit each month, their general topic of conversation pertains to discussions on the welfare of their relations.  These unpredictable people refuse to think as individuals and all requests and demands made upon the administration are made as a group. 

Almost  one  year to the day after Mountain Prison  commenced operations, and after many meetings and a prayer service  by  the  inmates, they requested to see the Superintendent.  The officer in charge  realized the precariousness  of the tense situation and contacted the Superintendent immediately, who returned to the prison from Victoria.  Upon his arrival all  the  inmates gathered around him and their declaration of a ‘fast unto death’ was read by one member. This was received in writing and was later to become  a  legal document.

The subsequent fast which began on July 21, 1963, and lasted one hundred and two days hospitalized ten inmates and resulted in the death of one Freedomite. On the advice of the attending physician, the staff  was forced to feed one hundred inmates for approximately two  and a  half months. Because of the limited staff force and acts of violence by some inmates, it was necessary to call upon  the parent  institution, a medical team, and a number of prevailing
rate employees for assistance.

A crucial time during the fast period came with the arrival of approximately seven hundred trekking Doukhobors from Vancouver  and the  interior of B.C. They arrived in cars, trucks, and  buses,  and set up camp at the east entrance to the prison, less than one-quarter of a mile  from  the prison compound. Visits and corresponding privileges with the inmates are not allowed and the trekkers, therefore, resorted to climbing the nearby mountains from where the shout and signal greetings to the inmates. 

Now with winter approaching, activity in the tent town has been brisk. Approximately one hundred and ninety of their crude shelters are being covered with wooden frames, cardboard  and  plastic,  or any  other material that can be gathered from the countryside and from the nearby garbage dump. They are gathering wood for heating and cooking on the makeshift stoves with pipes from old one-quart fruit  juice and oil cans.

Weekends find the road to Mountain Prison and "tent town" jammed with Canadian  and United States tourists seeking a glimpse of these poor confused renegades who have defied all the laws of our land. 

What happens next to this radical  sect is unknown.  The forthcoming winter, with its rainfall and winds which could reach a velocity of sixty miles an hour will, no doubt, test the will of the trekkers to remain at the gates of Mountain Prison.

One thing appears certain, unfortunately. The leaders of the Sons of  Freedom Doukhobor Sect will continue more vigorously than ever to rule the rest of the sect by terror, threat  and  indoctrination. They will continue to despise man-made laws, destroy property,  and  seek public sympathy. All for a cause which we — or  they themselves — cannot understand.”

– Superintendent Raymond Wilson, Mountain Institution, “Mountain Prison’s Fanatical Sons,” Federal Corrections. Volume 2A – No. 4. September-October-November 1963.

Photograph shows two elders of the Sons of Freedom

‘trekkers’ outside of Mountain Prison, in the Agassiz camp, protesting the death of an inmate on fast. Source is

Doukhobor Genealogy Website. From the private collection of the George Henry (“Timothy”) Eaton family, West Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Expanding the Carceral State
While the federal government was no more willing to step into state prisons on behalf of Muslim prisoners than it was in Albany, Georgia, on behalf of nonviolent protestors, the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood continued to receive attention from the state capital in Albany, New York. The writ-writing campaigns of prisoners had helped prompt a national response and the attention of the courts, but it also caused an arm of the state to reach deep into incarcerated communities. Wardens and state corrections officers authorized prison surveillance and, in some cases, even dedicated a staff member to internal supervision of the Nation of Islam. This surveillance was meant not only to absorb and report but also to disrupt and subvert. It also provided the raw material for state knowledge production that could quell prison activism. Prison officials soon emerged as arbiters of religious orthodoxy, determining who and what constituted legitimate Muslim practice.

As they looked to Muslim religious practices such as eating, prayer, and use of Arabic for markers of identity and political agitation, prisoners turned to informal strategies of daily resistance to combat state intrusions. Through its intervention, the state also assigned political meaning to religious practice, further politicizing incarceration and the practice of Islam within prison walls. State surveillance began with prison officers, who had the most daily contact with prisoners. One institution devoted an officer to keeping a list of all active members, searching their cells, and confiscating any literature relating to the Nation of Islam. Seizing materials slowed the spread of conversions and were a source for state intelligence. An area of concern was prisoners’ use of Arabic. The language not only served a cultural and religious function but also flummoxed prison security. For example, Bratcher gave specific instructions in his letter to Malcolm X: his mother would write him of the minister’s reply in red

ink with “three lines of Al-Fatihab” (referring to Al-Fatiha, the first surah in the Qur’an). One state report noted that it “would seem doubtful if the majority of the prisoners can rea[d] and write Arabic but if notes are picked up that seem to contain no meaning maybe they would bear investigating.” Several months later, six pages of Arabic to English and English to Arabic translation were confiscated. 

Another surveillance strategy that relied heavily on prison officers was the scrutiny of Muslim eating habits. The refusal to eat pork in prisons recalls Malcolm X’s own imprisonment in the late 1940s when he and other prisoners protested its prevalence in prison diets. At Attica Prison, Bratcher wrote to Warden Walter Wilkins asking for permission to carry food from the mess hall to his cell so he and other Muslim prisoners could eat after sundown during Ramadan. One prisoner was even charged with wasting state food for throwing away his bacon and refusing to eat it. Daily political acts such as throwing away bacon even escalated to more formal strikes. In Milan, Michigan, where Elijah Muhammad had once been incarcerated for draft resistance, prisoners took part in a three day hunger strike against pork, which eventually resulted in Muslim-prepared food and a separate dining section. 

These actions were challenged by prison officials who quickly seized on dietary restrictions as a way to monitor and challenge the legitimacy of a prisoner’s religious beliefs. “In order to check the authenticity of the Muslims,” Woodward’s memo noted, “each officer has been required to submit to the principal keeper’s office a report on whether or not the particular prisoner in question is eating pork. The members who are eating pork will be … included in next month’s report.” Another institution itemized prisoners’ eating when pork was served in the mess hall: “Of the above total [of 70], 30 prisoners either refused their ration or gave it to another prisoner, and additional 16 prisoners took their ration to their cells and only two were actually observed fasting.” By monitoring prisoners’ eating, writings, and literature, prison officers acted as foot soldiers in the state’s surveillance of the Nation of Islam. 

From this narrow base of day-to-day surveillance, reports on Muslims in prison also radiated outward to the state and federal levels. The success of the NOI’s organized prison litigation continued to trouble prison officials. The first to present on the NOI at the ACA’s annual conference was the noted penologist Donald Clemmer, who authored his foundational study The Prison Community in 1940. By 1963, topics such as “The Black Muslims and Religious Freedom in Prison” and “The Black Muslim in Prison: A Personality Study” surfaced at the conference. The academic communities of penology and criminology emerged as part of the state’s developing knowledge production about the NOI. 

The 1960s also marked a shift from rehabilitative strategies to psychological warfare and new technologies of violence, and Muslim prisoners were often the first subjected to these new experimental practices. As Alan Gómez notes, bibliotherapy was replaced with isolation, sensory deprivation, and brainwashing; Muslim prison litigation helped “propel this shift.” Edgar Schein, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a paper in 1961 to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons entitled “Man against Man: Brainwashing.” Bertra S. Brown of the National Institute of Mental Health responded by contacting prison administrators and suggesting that they “do things perhaps on your own—undertake a little experiment of what you can do with Muslims.” As Gómez persuasively argues, the ascension of Control Units, Special Housing Units, and Adjustment Centers, were all outgrowths of the experimental use of excessive solitary confinement by prison officials during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These punishments and techniques, he concluded, were “initially experimented with on Muslim inmates [but] later used en masse on political activists [and] became the model for the entire prison regime.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 90-93.

Photos are from Ann Arbor Times, September 6, 1966.

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“The economic exploitation of prisoners doesn’t end when they’re released. In 49 states, inmates are charged for the costs of their own incarceration.

The way this works varies. In some states, formerly incarcerated people are sent bills, and in others they are charged fines (sometimes called legal financial obligations, or LFOs). Some states collect the cost of incarcerating someone through windfall statutes, grabbing any inheritances, lottery winnings or proceeds from litigation.

There’s no way to pay these bills ahead of their due dates or work these charges off while in prison, no matter how hard you work. No inmate can earn enough inside to cover the costs of their incarceration; each one will necessarily leave with a bill. The state of Florida, which pays inmate workers a maximum of $0.55 per hour, billed former inmate Dee Taylor $55,000 for his three-year sentence. He would have had to work 100,000 hours, or over 11 years nonstop, at a prison wage to pay for his three year incarceration. Even as a free man working at Florida’s minimum wage of $8.25, he would have to work more than 6,666 hours ― more than three regular work years ― and not spend a penny on anything else to pay it back. 

These debts are impossible for the even hardest-working people to pay off. Most people enter prison poor, and half of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed six months after they leave custody. Those who find jobs after prison will earn very little; the median income for people within one year of their release is $10,090 ― only 55 percent had any earnings at all. This makes paying any type of bill a challenge. The bills for one’s prison time compete with active and essential living expenses like housing, food, utilities and transport. Ex-offenders in the United States owe about $50 billion for various criminal justice costs like pretrial detention, court fees and incarceration costs. It’s estimated that as much 60 percent of a formerly incarcerated person’s income goes toward “criminal justice debt,” even for those who have ostensibly paid their debt to society.  

These debts can make it even harder for a returning citizen to rebuild their life after incarceration, because in 46 states, failure to repay them is an offense punishable by yet more incarceration. A Georgia man named Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to shoplifting a $2 can of beer and was fined $200 and sentenced to probation, supposedly so he could avoid jail. That was a futile hope, since he was eventually incarcerated after he failed to pay over $1,000 in fees attached to that $200 fine. In Rhode Island from 2005 through 2007, failure to pay court debt was the most common reason that individuals were incarcerated, which means that, in a state that routinely spends around $200 million on corrections every year, the most common reason for incarcerating people there was something other than crime.”

– 

Chandra Bozelko and Ryan Lo, “You’ve Served Your Time. Now Here’s Your Bill.Huffpost, September 16, 2018.

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“As the five men waited for the SaMarion case to reach trial in the summer of 1962, they planned a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement. The prisoners claimed that Bratcher’s segregation was “an excuse by the warden . . to make him seem that he was crazy concerning this trial that was coming up.” Writ writing had exacerbated fears among prison officials and became one of the most successful strategies for Muslim prisoners. The Nation of Islam successfully flooded the courts with writs across the country. Between 1961 and 1978, sixty-six reported federal court decisions were made on suits fled by prisoners affiliated with the Nation of Islam. In California the number of habeas corpus petitions rose from a mere 814 in 1957 to nearly five thousand by 1965. At San Quentin in 1965, prisoners were churning out almost three hundred petitions per month. As Judge Brennan noted at one trial, these were not “cases where uneducated, inexperienced and helpless plaintiffs are involved … these applications are part of a movement.” Prison litigation became the “peaceful equivalent of a riot” by catalyzing public support and bringing national attention to the otherwise-hidden struggles of prisoners.

One of the largest structural challenges to prison organizing was physical isolation from the outside world. Activists relied on what Berger has called “a strategy of visibility” to make their struggles known. Testifying has its political roots in slavery and has been carried forward through the black feminist tradition. As Danielle McGuire points out in her work on the role of the struggle against sexual violence in the civil rights movement, “testimony must be seen as a form of direct action and radical protest.” Black prisoners saw the courts as political pulpits, a breach in the walls allowing them to take their claims before the world outside. As James Jacobs wrote, “it is as if the courts had become a battlefield where prisoners and prison administrators, led by their respective legal champions, engage in mortal combat.” Sostre later wrote that the “court is an arena. It is a battlefield—one of the best. We will use these same torture chambers, these same kangaroo courts, to expose them.”

Nowhere was this more evident than during Malcolm X’s testimony during the SaMarion trial. Bratcher realized that the state would be mobilizing witnesses to testify against the Nation of Islam’s standing in the Muslim world and wrote to the minister that the “‘Key’ witness I am depending on to ‘seal’ our victory is ‘You’ Minister Malcolm ‘X.’” This set the stage for a four-day showdown between Malcolm X and the state’s witness, the Columbia University professor Joseph Franz Schacht. While Malcolm X admitted openly in court that he had an eighth-grade education, no formal theological training, and could not speak Arabic, Schacht had a “masterly knowledge” of the language, and his book Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, which argued for the historical development and sociological implications of Islamic law, was considered a seminal text in the Western study of Islam. Yet Malcolm X weaved around the meritocratic probing of the state. When asked if he had a degree in theology, he noted that if “my understanding of the word ‘theological’ is correct, the study of God, the science that deals with religion and the study of God, I studied theology in that sense under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad about our God.” When pressed on the length of his education, he replied: “I am still studying.” When interrogated on whether or not he was ordained or had a written certificate that permitted him to proselytize, he reminded the court that “Jesus sent his disciples forth with no written certificate or anything but his approval.” Malcolm X’s

testimony was so convincing that when Schacht took the stand and listed his membership in the Royal Netherlands Academy, the Arabic Academy in Damascus, and an honorary degree in Law from University of Algiers, the judge responded: “I don’t think it is quite thoroughly clear at this time to qualify him as an expert.” 

While Henderson had, in effect, apologized for and excused his racism in the same remark, his open respect for Malcolm X’s opinion shifted the tenor of the case. As Griffin recalled, Henderson was “impressed by Malcolm and his testimony … [and] respected Malcolm for his clear statements and responses.” Bresnihan, likely attempting to curry favor with the judge, then began adopting the phrase the “American Black Man” in his questioning. Malcolm X’s use of the courtroom as a political stage reveals the importance of testimony as a form of nonviolent resistance. His testimony lasted three days, and was over 20 percent of the two-week trial transcript, successfully compelling the judge to rule that the Nation of Islam was a religious organization. But more importantly, Malcolm X’s  political views took center stage and fundamentally altered the rhetoric and discourse of the case.

The case at Attica Prison also underscores the important role that the jailhouse lawyer played in organizing legal challenges from prison. Knowing that most prisoners were not qualified to draw up their own legal challenges, prisons such as Attica maintained rules prohibiting legal assistance. For example, “rule 21” at Attica stated: “Prisoners are prohibited except upon approval of the warden to assist other prisoners in preparation of legal papers.” This strategy was reproduced nationally as a means of combatting prison litigation efforts. In Texas, administrators employed a similar strategy, forbidding writ writers from possessing the legal materials of a fellow prisoner. In California this was known as Rule D-2602. Even if a prisoner wanted to use another’s paperwork as a template, officials concluded that any legal material in a cell not pertaining to that prisoner was evidence of prison lawyering. Just as grandfather clauses and poll taxes worked as state mechanisms to disfranchise southern black voters, rules governing legal access and jailhouse lawyering sought to curb legal literacy and prisoners’ access to the judicial system. Thus, when Sostre wrote to Walker, he urged him to copy the writ into his notebook, then flush it down the toilet, but not to “let this lay around. This is dynamite.” He then listed the “most essential weapons in fighting Shaitan” (Arabic transliteration of “the devil”): legal paper, an ink eraser, one dollar of postage stamps, a loose-leaf binder, and a ball-point pen.

Trough cases such as Pierce v. LaVallee, SaMarion v. McGinnis, and later, Cooper v. Pate, the NOI brought about judicial oversight such that, by 1974, the Supreme Court declared that no longer was an “iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Yet, while the Supreme Court strictly forbade any “direct or indirect interference by prisons or state authorities” in prisoners’ access to the courts, prisons obstructed court access through measures such as rule 21. They also limited legal advice, intimidated writ writers, and disrupted the legal process through solitary confinement.

Despite these attempts, Muslim prisoners were more organized than the often uncoordinated strategies of local prison officials and state policy makers. In one example in California, San Quentin Prison officials set up a small office where three prisoners transcribed writs onto standardized forms and processed them on a duplicating machine. Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections attempted to clamp down on writ writers by prohibiting access to law literature and court decisions. 

But Sostre’s letter to Walker in solitary confinement also revealed another strategy pointing toward the concurrent tactics of prison organizing and the broader black freedom struggle. Prisoners appropriated the principal mechanism of prison repression—solitary confinement—as a tool of organized protest. Recognizing that most of Attica Prison’s Muslims were already in solitary confinement, Sostre urged Walker to not be sent back to general population. According to Sostre, they “made a pact not to go down until the religious persecution of the Muslims cease[s].” If Walker was sent back, he was told to threaten to bring contraband literature out of his cell and be sent back to solitary. They reasoned that each time the warden “snatch[ed] an aggressive Muslim out of population, he would send one down from the box and send another one up from population. In other words, he kept manipulating the brothers like monkeys on a string.” Yet Sostre astutely noted that when “the box ceases to work, the entire disciplinary and security system breaks down.” The take-over of solitary confinement was an example of prisoners creatively adapting the methods of prison control as resistance. NOI members filled solitary confinement until the box no longer was an effective form of punishment. Wardens were then faced with the decision of creating hotbeds of activism in segregation or undermining the arbitrary rules they had worked so hard to justify and enforce. 

The prisoners’ strategy of filling solitary confinement mirrored, and in fact predated, the developing civil rights strategy of “Jail, no bail” in the South. …

The prisoners’ strategy of taking over solitary can be traced back to Clinton Prison when the men were reported by the prison officer as discussing the tactics (over a year before the Friendship Nine employed this strategy). While civil rights organizers in the South and prisoners at Attica appropriated forms of state control, Chief Pritchett in Albany was able to mobilize a larger network of police and jails just as wardens at Clinton and Attica Prisons were able to transfer prisoners to other state prisons when their much smaller segregation units became filled with politicized prisoners. Both movements also attempted to garner national attention and press for federal intervention. As Len Holt

of the Congress of Racial Equality explained, “if we go to jail by the hundreds and thousands, the hearts of those who would maintain the old order will be inundated with the guilt necessary to bring about change.” For prisoners at Attica, solitary confinement and the loss of good time were crucial to their claims in state and federal courts. As Sostre wrote: “We have taken over the box and he is anxious to get us out of the box, especially with the big trial coming soon. So don’t let him clean up, for we are living proof of the religious oppression complained of in our writs.” Filling solitary confinement not only

undermined prison security but also built a case for trial and dramatized prisoners’ struggles before the courts and the nation.

But in both cases, appropriation of state repression had unintended consequences. As Berger argues, “mass arrests of political activists provided a dry run for mass incarceration, especially when joined with the economic transformations wrought by mechanization and migration. The civil rights movement gave states an early taste of what it would mean to arrest, prosecute, and imprison large groups of people.” In the case of Muslims at Attica Prison, it coincided with intensified surveillance and monthly reports on the group. Despite their similarities, the “Jail, no bail” strategy has its place in the annals of civil rights history as a heroic confrontation with southern Jim Crow through nonviolent direct action; meanwhile, the take-over of solitary confinement by Muslims at Attica Prison has gone unremarked. At best, the Nation of Islam has been depicted as a reluctant political participant, pulled toward the struggle by Malcolm X. At worst, it is portrayed as an apolitical religious sect that was marginal, or even antithetical, to such movements. Such disparate historical treatments raise important questions about what are seen as legitimate politics, legible activists, and visible sites of resistance in histories of the black freedom movement.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 84-90 

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“There is hope, though. For centuries, a worker’s most potent weapon against exploitation from capitalism and oppression from the powers that be has been direct action: the strike. And right now, America’s prisoners are on strike. Incarcerated workers across the nation are standing up to protest their inhumane living conditions and buck the horrific yoke of prison slavery with organized labor’s strongest weapons—solidarity and collective action.

The prison strike was organized by workers both inside and outside detention facilities, spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), and supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), and sparked by [deadly uprisings at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina earlier this year that cost seven prisoners’ lives. The strike began on August 21 and ends on September 9, dates that reflect the legacy of rebellion in American prisons: on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was killed by prison guards in San Quentin, and his death was met by protests from other prisoners across the country, culminating in the famed September 9 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. By choosing these dates, participants in the prison strike of 2018 are drawing a direct line between their current struggle and the struggles of those who have come before, emphasizing the stark fact that very little has changed in terms of conditions or opportunities for those who are locked up and held by the state since the birth of the modern prison system.

The striking prisoners of today have released a list of ten demands, which calls for improvements to the current living conditions in prisons, increased rehabilitation programs, educational opportunities, and specific policy goals. This essentially articulates the idea of non-reformist reforms, a central plank of prison abolition. By illuminating the barbarity of the current prison system and calling for its abolishment while advocating for an improvement in current conditions, they are—to paraphraseFrench socialist André Gorz—asking not for what can be achieved within a current system, but for what should be possible.

As of August 21, across 17 states (and one Canadian province), these incarcerated workers are demanding real, tangible prison reform, and the abolition of one of America’s great enduring shames—the loophole enacted by the 13th amendment that decrees slavery can be used to penalize those convicted of a crime. This is where the term “prison slavery” originates, as director Ava DuVernay laid out in her groundbreaking 2016 documentary 13th, which argues that slavery never ended — it was just repurposed by the prison industrial complex and blossomed as mass incarceration. Her documentary argued that the new American plantations don’t grow cotton, they work prison jobs churning out license plates and other cheap goods, for which prisoners are paid mere pennies on the hour—if at all. Meanwhile, prison labor generates an estimated $1 billion per year, proving to be quite a profitable business for the private companies and corporations who benefit from prisoners’ work.

Prison labor is used to manufacture a vast array of consumer goods, from Christmas toys and blue jeans to military equipment, lingerie, and car parts. Incarcerated people also frequently serve as a captive labor force for prisons themselves as kitchen and maintenance workers, and for a variety of other services, from shoveling snow after a Boston blizzard to harvesting oranges in Florida. (California recently made headlines when it was revealed that it was using prison labor to fight its deadly wildfires, which it has done since the 1940s; the prisoners (which included some juvenile offenders) were reportedly paid $1 per hour plus $2 per day to risk their lives, and are barred from becoming firefighters after their release.) Prisoners are paid very little for their work; the average wage in state prisons ranges, on average, from 14 cents to 63 cents per hour for “regular” prison jobs, and between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour for those who work for state-owned businesses, and while they are working full-time jobs, prisoners do not always have the benefit of basic labor protections, such as minimum wage, sick leave, or overtime pay. Given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.3 million people currently behind bars, the prison industrial complex would collapse were it to pay incarcerated workers the minimum wage—which creates further incentive for them to keep locking people up.

Many prisoners welcome the chance to work during their incarceration, because it gets them out of their cells, allows them to make purchases from commissary, and gives them the opportunity to send money home to their loved ones, but not everyone is given a choice: according to Newsweek, some prisoners in eight states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas—are not paid at all for their labor in government-run facilities.

Unlike most other workers, prisoners cannot simply walk off the job; they are forced to get more creative. Participants in the strike have several options available to them, according to Mother Jones, including commissary boycotts, work stoppages, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, and reports of participation are continually coming in from different facilities. In addition, these workers also have much more to fear in terms of retaliation, and several organizers say that they have already endured punitive measures.

Participating in a prison strike is a matter of life or death, but for prisoners seeking justice, if not freedom, there is really no other option.”

– Kim Kelly, “How the Ongoing Prison Strike is Connected to the Labor Movement.” Teen Vogue, September 4, 2018.

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“The transfer to Attica in 1960 was an explicit attempt at curbing Muslim activism in New York prisons and represented the first of a variety of methods of prison discipline by the state. The practice of transferring prisoners to “break up gangs, separate associates in crime, and prevent disorder” was decades old. Sostre later referred to it as “bus therapy.” It was not unique to New York, however. Chase notes that the Texas Department of Correction distributed Muslims throughout state prisons to limit their influence in any one location. These institutional transfers (referred to as “drafts”) and solitary confinement represented the two largest threats to the stability of Muslim communities in prison. The group was persistently under threat due to this constantly fluctuating base. Short sentences often meant the release of members, and several assistants were appointed for each officer position to assure continuity and sustainability. These multiple appointments were primarily meant to combat the “further reduction of our ranks by the implacable enemy through persecutions (solitary confinement).”

Solitary confinement—sometimes referred to as “the box” or “segregation”—was the prison’s primary tool of security and discipline. The practice of solitary confinement was honed over a century earlier at New York’s Auburn Prison, with a trademark system of strict discipline, labor for prison profit, and solitude. This drew on nineteenth-century penal thought based on the belief that collective work and isolated living would reform prisoners. By the 1960s, at Attica Prison, solitary confinement had shed all pretenses of rehabilitation and was used strictly as a disciplinary measure. The section consisted of fifty individual cells on the third floor of the reception building with each single cell containing only a bed, toilet, wash basin with running water, and a light. When assigned to segregation, prisoners often were required to stay for days or weeks in “keep-lock” or a strip cell before moving to the gallery. “Keep-lock” was a single solitary cell with doors that “do not open up any more.” The strip cell was bare, with only a bucket and blanket. As SaMarion testified, prisoners “do an initial twenty days on a concrete floor with only a pair of winter underwear, pair of socks, no sanitary facilities whatever. The only thing you

use for calls of nature is a bucket, a defecation bucket.” Rations in keep-lock were reduced to half of normal mess-hall food: water and two slices of bread. Magette described keeplock at Clinton Prison as even more medieval. The “Dark Cell” was completely empty, without even a blanket. He was put there naked with a half a cup of water and one slice of bread three times a day. 

But solitary confinement was used by prison officials as more than a physical deterrent. It was coupled with the loss of good time as a way to isolate prisoners while simultaneously extending their sentences. Good time, sometimes referred to as good behavior (and now called “earned time”), was purportedly meant to reward well-behaved prisoners with a shortened sentence through their good conduct. However, like solitary confinement, it was used as a punitive measure. For example, in the first year the men spent at Attica Prison, thirty-three prisoners were sent to solitary confinement and four hundred cases of discipline led to 8,525 total days of good time lost over a nine-month period.

The loss of good time and the use of solitary confinement also punished prisoners in two directions at once. First, prisoners lost an initial amount of time for the disciplinary matter. For instance, SaMarion lost sixty days for joining a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement of another Muslim prisoner. Te second loss of time occurred during solitary confinement, as each day in solitary earned three lost days. Finally, regardless of prisoners’ behavior in solitary confinement, good time could not begin to be reaccumulated until a prisoner had been readmitted to the prison’s general population. These good-time practices illustrate the vast discretionary powers wielded by prison officials. As SaMarion bleakly noted at trial, “it is taken at will, you have it one minute,
then you don’t have it.”

A year after the four men had been transferred from Clinton Prison, Attica Prison officials reported that a sit-down strike was being planned in protest of Sostre’s solitary confinement. They responded by putting the prisoners in keep-lock with a loss of ninety days of good time. The group was then divided and transferred to different blocks with the hope that “after a thirty-day cooling-off period and the dispersion of the members of this click[,] activity will abate.” This incident reveals the ongoing struggle between strategies employed by prison officials to suppress Muslim activism and prisoners’ resistance to such practices. The state used transfers and the combination of solitary confinement and goodtime practices to slow the spread of Islam in New York prisons. But prisoners continued to bring their plight before the courts, ending the unspoken “hands-off” policy that had previously sheltered prisons from oversight by the judicial branch.” 

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 83-84

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On the website for Unicor, the newly renamed Federal Prison Industries — the 84-year-old government-run corporation that utilizes incarcerated people for labor — there’s a section called “Shopping.” There, you can benefit from the fruits of the company’s “Factories With Fences” program, which produces items manufactured by the 182,797 inmates of the nation’s federal prisons: socks, solar panels, goggles, shelving, license plates, office furniture. For $139, you can buy the Chrome Frame Matrix HD Chair for your office or home in ebony, wine, sapphire, or indigo, knowing it was made by prisoners who serve Unicor at dozens of facilitiesfrom Canaan, Pennsylvania, to Atwater, California. If you are looking for labor, prisoners can also be contracted for your company, for services ranging from manufacturing to call center duties. After all, it’s a fantastic deal: The pay rate for inmates ranges from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. This, partners are told, offers companies “minimized overhead costs to help drive bottom-line improvements. (Seeing this bargain laid out in the crisp, airless language of convenience capitalism both elides the skin-crawling horror of incarceration and somehow underscores it.) Unicor has a capsule history of the federal U.S. prison labor program on its website, which notes that prison work programs originated in the United States with the nation’s founding in the 1700s, and that “despite periods of criticism from detractors, increasingly constrictive procurement laws, misinformation and stigma,” they have “endured.”

The latest “test” to prison labor comes not from outside detractors or procurement laws, but from within the prisons themselves. On August 21, a loosely connected network of incarcerated activists, led by the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a nationwide prison strike. One of the ten demands released by the protesters is an end to prison slavery – a demand for a full and fair wage just noting it specifies as based on the prevailing wage in their state or territory for any labor performed while incarcerated.

The strike was inspired by a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 15, which left seven inmates — Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, and Joshua Jenkins — dead. Prisoners stated that the surge of violence was due to inhumane living conditions, punitive sentences, and the prison warehousing rival gangs in the same units.

The date was set for August 21, the day Nat Turner’s slave revolt began in 1831. It’s meant to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica State Peniteniary uprising, a mass prisoner takeover of an upstate New York prison in 1971 that ultimately led to significant reforms in the New York carceral system.

“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” said Attica inmate Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, in one of the first public statements made by the protesting prisoners in 1971. Barkley, the most visible face of the Attica uprising, was shot in the back and killed when authorities stormed the prison to quell the uprising, leaving thirty prisoners and ten prison guards dead.

The first demand of the 2018 strike echoes Barkley’s words across decades: It is a call for “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” The rest are concretizations of this demand: that the label of “violent offender” should not result in anyone being barred from rehabilitation programs; that current and former prisoners regain their voting rights; an end to racist over-charging of black and brown people; and an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely restricts the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits, among others.

The strike is as sprawling and difficult to track as America’s prison state itself, a system that encompasses some 2.3 million people. Its participants are largely anonymized by the activists who publicize their resistance, for fear of retaliation by prison authorities. By its very nature, it vexes publications, as the incarcerated individuals taking part are purposefully tucked out of sight and kept from communicating with the press. But reports have trickled out — particularly in activist-aligned outlets like Democracy Now! and It’s Going Down — of ICE detainees hunger-striking in Washington State; prison work stoppages in South Carolina; boycotts of commissaries in Florida; and more hunger strikers, in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. Many groups of strikers have released local demands. These reports are smuggled out like the contraband they are, to whichever ears on the outside are willing to receive them.

At New Folsom Prison in California, 26-year-old Heriberto Garcia, in the tenth year of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, recorded himself refusing food in his cell and smuggled the video to a revolutionary press in Chicago, which posted the video to Twitter. “I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since,” he wrote to correspondents at True Leap Press last year. “I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as I’m alive.”

Sympathizers on the outside have staged a variety of actions to show solidarity to incarcerated strikers. In Minneapolis, protesters set off fireworks outside one of the city’s juvenile detention centers, accompanied by music by the anarchist marching band Unlawful Assembly. In Brooklyn, marchers banged drums while Metropolitan Detention Center inmates flashed contraband cellphones through narrow windows; in other states, activists have participated in banner drops, created solidarity graffiti, and clashed with police in marches.

Inside prison walls, incarcerated individuals who engage in active resistance must contend with a system designed to impose punishment and tighten the vice of privation. Activists have reported retaliatory solitary confinement, transfers, and the deprivation of clean clothes and showers for prisoners who have helped to organize hunger strikes and work stoppages. In America’s prisons — the gray archipelago of warehoused men and women tucked in towns, behind great casements of cement — a great shadow economy moves forward. Every consumer annoyance in the outside world — phone-company fees, health insurance premiums — has a parallel that exists in the prison economy, only contractors are free to exploit a captive audience. Prisoners stripped of their liberty have to further contend with exorbitant fees for outside phone calls; charges for medical care; erratic or extortionate prices in prison commissaries; and perhaps most grotesquely, in 43 states, “room and board fees” for incarceration itself.

Imprisoned men and women are the drivers of this multibillion-dollar shadow economy: its laborers and its prey. The work stoppages and hunger strikes are the weapons of those from whom all others have been stripped. The hands that assemble thousands of chairs and tables and solar panels, that sew socks and table linens, that print and bind books for pennies, have no recourse beyond stilling themselves from that work, in the face of fearful punishment. Over the past decades, prisoners have packaged holiday coffees for Starbucks, stitched lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, and answered calls for AT&T, and farmed tilapia for Whole Foods, among dozens of other blue-chip brands. The small luxuries — cheese, chocolate, soap — of the commissary are all they have to boycott, and those who can are doing so. Hunger itself is the last offensive of the incarcerated person, when the only freedom left for a body is the freedom to devour itself. It’s the freedom once expressed by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote, after her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned by Stalin:

In this madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live. With the wolves of the marketplace
I refuse to be. I refuse to swim
with the sharks, on a current of human spines.

In America, our gulags are run not just to punish, but for private companies’ profit, for the sake of the smooth and ugly Chrome Frame Matrix HD Office Chair and its buyers, made in prison. The act of striking is a rebuke not just of individual prison conditions, but of the grinding, predatory march of the prison economy itself. America is punitive — we have the largest number of incarcerated individuals in the world — and it is harsh to those it punishes. It is not a coincidence that those subject to the abysmal conditions of the carceral state are disproportionately racial minorities. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites across the country, and at ten times the rate of whites in some states. Modern prison slavery, as criminal-justice reform advocates have pointed out again and again, is an extension of our nation’s original sin, the forced labor of black bodies. The acts of defiance smuggled to our eyes and ears from within the system are necessarily small, necessarily isolated from one another, necessarily borne of the cramped and violent framework in which they are contained. It is on us to amplify them to their appropriate enormity, to let the fire of that fierce, noble hunger rise in us, and turn insatiably to justice.

– Talia Lavin, “#Prisonstrike: A Rebellion Inside America’s Profitable Gulag Archipelago.” Village Voice, August 31, 2018.

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