On August 21, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a labor union for prisoners that aims “to end prison slavery,” announced the start of a nationwide strike inside U.S. prisons. Wages for incarcerated workers are typically measured in cents per hour, and several states—including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and South Carolina—use the labor of prisoners without paying them at all.
“We first heard about the strike from I.W.O.C.,” a man who is incarcerated in South Carolina, and is participating in the strike, told me, speaking from prison on a contraband cell phone. “They sent out a text message inviting everybody to join in—you know, to stand in solidarity and to end prison injustice. I did my own research, looked it up, verified it,” he added. He shared his identity with The New Yorker but spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation by prison officials.
“The strike was supposed to happen next year,” he went on, “and it didn’t have anything to do with South Carolina—until the riot happened, and those gentlemen died.” In April, seven men were killed in a bloody prison riot at Lee County Correctional Institution, an understaffed prison in Bishopville, South Carolina. The head of the prison system, Bryan Stirling, claimed that gangs, contraband, and cell phones were to blame. Organizers moved the strike up in response, setting a new start date on the anniversary of the day, in 1971, that California prison guards shot George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party. The strike is meant to continue until September 9th, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising.
“The information gets out by word of mouth, and it spreads,” the South Carolina man told me. “Somebody on lockup might get word to somebody on the yard with a little note. We call them ‘kites’—sending up a kite. Other times, you might not know something, and then it shows up on the news, and it sparks interest in everybody. It spreads like wildfire in some cases.”
I.W.O.C. initially expected tens of thousands of prisoners across seventeen states to participate. One week into the strike, the union reported that actions seemed to have taken place in prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities in ten states, and also in Nova Scotia. Accurate numbers were hard to come by, in part because some state-prison officials refused to confirm that a strike had occurred. Over the past two weeks, reports have trickled out through letters, accounts of family members, and contraband cell phones.
The strike participant spoke to me on August 31st and September 4th from inside a maximum-security prison in South Carolina. He said that the facility has been on lockdown for months, but that he had spread word of the strike on Facebook. His account has been edited and condensed.
“Here in South Carolina, we’re going on a spending strike. We’re not spending any money with the state, if at all possible. You have some that’s doing medical strikes, just refusing to take their meds, if they can. I would say thirty per cent, right now, are striking—as opposed to what we had a week ago, maybe fifty, fifty-five per cent. A good bit of people trying to participate.
“Some brothers want to extend the strike. Me myself, I’ll hold out as long as I have to. We really appreciate what we hear on the news—other countries is involved, other states. We just want things to change.
“They have us in cells designed for one man with two men. They put these big plates over our windows, where we can’t see outside. Ninety per cent of the rooms here don’t have any lockers, chairs, or tables. The top bunk is almost six feet from the ground. There’s no ladder. We have men in their late forties on up trying to access these beds to sleep on.
“The building is brick. It’s old. The plumbing is bad, of course. Every weekend, the water—I don’t know what happens to it, but it smells like sewer. We can’t really drink it. We wouldn’t chance it. So we save a little water to drink on the weekends. They give us little containers we can fill up.
“They don’t pay anything to most South Carolina inmates. They have programs—they call it S.C.D.C. Prison Industries—and they pay probably, like, five per cent of the population to go to outside industries to work. Like a tire shop, or rag plant, or floor crew. But they pay these guys the bare minimum—like, thirty-two cents an hour, or something like that. If that’s not slave labor
“From my perspective, if we could just work, and earn some money to take care of ourselves, we would deal with the conditions. Even if we have to spend our own money to fix it. We’ll take care of our families. We just want to be able to take care of ourselves as men and women, in this Department of Corrections.
“Most of the guys here are in for violent crimes. Usually, violent crimes stem from money—the lack thereof. You’ve got people on robbery, or murder that stems from robbery. I’m not making an excuse for anybody, but it all boils down to money. And, as long as we sit here and we destitute, then we’re rotting away. We have to call home for money, to the same people that we probably went and robbed for—to take care of—in the first place.
“For most of us that’s going home, we’re gonna leave in the state that we came—and that’s broke. We’re gonna be destitute. We won’t even have cab fare. They only give us a bus ticket. So we have to fend for ourselves. We’re faced with the same dilemma that landed us in prison in the first place.
“The director, Mr. Stirling, he mentioned that he wanted to get the cell phones out of prison, so the inmates can focus on rehabilitation. But there is no rehabilitation. The only thing that keeps an inmate sane in here is the cell phone. Most of us, we do good with our phones, if we have them—we look up law, we look up how other prisons are run. We’ve got people way over in Norway with the same type of crimes, but they have a cap on the amount of years they can get. They dress in their own clothes. They get to be men.
“It was like spit in the face to have the director of prisons come on—he came on live TV—and shun the idea of what the strike was really about. The big wigs, the directors and the assistant directors, they’re not going inside the prisons. They don’t know what’s going on. They make outlandish rules and regulations.
“South Carolina is very, very short on staff. We have, like, two hundred and fifty-two in a building, in one dorm. It’s probably one correctional officer that has to run both wings. A lot of the C.O.s that we know, they’re for the strike. C.O.s here are not bad people. They live in our neighborhoods, they from around where we from. I have an officer that we talk to on the regular. And he was, like, ‘Brothers, if y’all gonna strike, then you definitely need more people. Just do it in a peaceful manner. Stay away from the violence, and say what you need to say.’
“We don’t want to fight them, and beat up the police. We don’t want to do any of that. But we’re asking for a little compassion here. Just treat us like humans, and we’ll act like it. I have to say this with the most respect as I can. The nature of the crime can’t change, but the nature of the person can. All we need is a little help.”