Prison conditions in the United States—where inmates routinely face sexual violence, torturous isolation, and warehousing that leaves them vulnerable to things like extreme heat—have galvanized prisoners into using whatever means at their disposal to prevent the state from gaining access to their labor. That is why prisoners across America are now on strike in what may be the largest such action in U.S. history.
Yet you wouldn’t know this from the near-total silence that has greeted the strike from the highest levels of the Democratic Party. Even as the party’s looming presidential primary contenders attempt to position themselves as progressive standard-bearers, their unwillingness to back the strike underscores the limits of the party’s discourse around criminal justice reform.
The strike is an insurrectionary uprising at every level, down to its timing. It was launched to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the killing of Black Panther Party member George Jackson, and is set to end on September 9, the 47th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion.
The strike’s list of demands include: an immediate end to forced labor; the restoration of voting rights to inmates; an end to racist so-called “gang enhancement laws” which give prosecutors broad powers to label people as gang members and thus increase their sentences; more rehabilitation services in prisons; and the rescinding of the Prison Litigation and Reform Act, a Clinton-era law which has denied prisoners the ability to address grievances and rights violations by curbing the number of civil cases against prisons.
Jared Ware, who is currently assisting the prisoner’s rights advocates group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, told Splinter that prisons have been conducting massive cell phone sweeps, and shaking down entire prisons looking for contraband in response to strike action. Yet, despite these attempts to choke off communication, Ware said that there are 17 states that will be attempting to participate at some point during the strike. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they meet that goal or exceed that,” he said.
There are multiple reports of strike activity around the country, and Ware said that actions are taking place in prisons in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
This should all be very exciting for anyone who considers themselves a progressive or a proponent of criminal justice reform. Yet thus far, not a single establishment Democrat, including the party’s most high-profile members, has even offered a performative acknowledgement of what is unfolding across the country.
For instance, Senator Kamala Harris, the former attorney general of California who has attempted to market herself as a progressive firebrand—and who wrote an essay last year on the need to engage in rehabilitation efforts rather than expand mass incarceration—has made no mention of the strike on or offline. Neither have 2020 frontrunners like Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, or Bernie Sanders. (Some up and coming Democrats, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have highlighted the strike.)
Though this state of affairs is depressing, it’s hardly stunning. Democrats have long been complicit in a bipartisan approach to criminal justice which has led to an expanding security apparatus, as well as little to no material gains for those more directly impacted by racist policing, discriminatory incarceration, and prison abuse. And even the ones who now proclaim themselves as champions of reform have a great deal to answer for.
Harris’ history, for example, is mired with calculated attacks on those targeted by police and discriminated against by the penal system. In 2014, while serving as Attorney General, Harris challenged a federal ruling against the death penalty; she also helped expand the prosecutorial reach of the state by offering a package of bills intended to whip up hysteria around truancy. In 2016, she was pressed by civil rights advocates, as well as members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus, to allow for independent investigations of deadly police shootings, something which she staunchly opposed. Especially pertinent to the strike was her office’s contention that California’s prisons would lose a vital source of labor if they let some people out early.
In New York, Andrew Cuomo, another possible 2020 contender who is seeking his third term as governor, rolled out what was dubbed a “nation-leading” series of proposals earlier this year that promised to “overhaul antiquated laws.” The sweeping changes included in the “reform package” promised to help those incarcerated transition into their communities. But the governor’s own record shows the limits of his reform talk.
For instance, Cuomo attempted to cut the number of visits, books, and packages prisoners could receive—a direct attack on the kinds of things that make life worth living. He has also issued just 12 commutations in eight years, according to The Appeal—a far worse record even than some of his Republican predecessors. According to campaign Free Them NY, the New York chapter of Survived and Punished’s commutation project, Cuomo issued just two commutations between 2017 and 2018 to date. There are currently more than 50,000 people imprisoned across the state of New York, clearly demonstrating that the clemency promises made—seemingly in order to temporarily appease prisoner rights advocates—have not been met, and as a result there are thousands still languishing behind prison walls.
Democrats have long cultivated ties to the prison industry as well. Today, opposition to detention facilities and private prisons have become a central theme for some Democrats—especially those who claim to be moved by the images and sounds of interned children—but it was only a few years ago that the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was doubling down in support of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA, since rebranded as CoreCivic, is one of the country’s largest private prison companies and now runs the most expansive immigrant family detention facility, the Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. In 2011, despite fierce public opposition, Schultz defended the building of a proposed immigration detention facility, going as far as to write a letter to former ICE director Gary Mead praising the economic benefits of the move.
Perhaps it’s the abolitionist bedrock of the strike that has silenced Democrats. Or maybe it’s how these demands so resolutely undermine the act of policing, and the insidious public prison industry, which often faces less criticism than private prisons. Whatever the case, their lack of support for the strike should not go unnoticed.
In Soledad Brother, George Jackson wrote on the conditions of the incarcerated with a damming prescience and energizing call to arms. “Nothing has improved, nothing had changed,” Jackson argued. “Growing numbers of blacks are openly passed over when paroles are considered. They have become aware that their only hope lies in resistance. They have learned that resistance is actually possible. With the sure knowledge that we are slated for destruction, we have been transformed into an implacable army of liberation.” The spirit expressed by Jackson remains today. It is our duty to direct attention to what transpires beyond the watchtower so that the flame of resistance keeps burning—with or without the help of elected officials.
Roqayah Chamseddine is a freelance writer.