Prisons Are Already Retaliating Against Inmates Protesting ‘Modern Slavery’
On Tuesday, inmates across the country launched a strike to protest labor conditions in prisons. Only three days into the strike, some inmates have experienced retaliation.
Inmates are already experiencing retaliation for alleged participation in the nation-wide prison strike that launched August 21, representatives from the prison labor advocacy group Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) told The Daily Beast.
The strike, organized by a prisoners’ rights group called Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and backed by IWOC, started Tuesday and will run until September 9. The strikers are calling for an immediate end to what they call “modern slavery,” a prison labor system that forces inmates to work for as little as four cents per hour, as well as nine other demands, detailed in a statement from April.
As part of the protest, participants are implementing a range of nonviolent tactics, including boycotts on work, collect phone calls, commissary snacks, package purchases, and electronic visitation—the major economic drivers of prison budgets.
But only three days into the strike, inmates are already facing backlash from correction officers.
Two Florida incarcerated men were sentenced to 18 months of “close management,” a Florida legal term for a kind of solitary confinement, according to IWOC spokesperson and organizer Karen Smith. A third inmate claims he was also confined, subject to three room raids, and had his personal mail confiscated, Smith Said. The Florida Department of Corrections says the inmate was never confined.
Julius Smith, a 30-year-old man serving 20 years at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution was sentenced to close management for alleged participation in organizing the strike. The charge against Julius stems from a cell phone and homemade weapon that guards allegedly found in his bunk, which the inmate claims were planted. The cell phone was on the ground, just thrown near his bunk, Smith told The Daily Beast.
The charge against Julius stems from a cell phone and homemade weapon that guards allegedly found in his bunk, which the inmate claims were planted. The cell phone was on the ground, just thrown near his bunk, Smith told The Daily Beast.
Ezzial Williams, an inmate serving 10 years at Union Correctional Institution, was also placed in close management in the weeks before the strike began for “inciting a riot” related to the protest.
“Close Management is akin to solitary confinement and Ezzial is held in a 9x7 cell for 23 hours a day,” IWOC wrote on their website. “Ezzial would greatly appreciate mail and could use stamps and writing supplies.” For one hour per day, Williams is allowed to leave his cell to walk around in a caged outdoor area, Smith said.
In a statement emailed to the Daily Beast, a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Corrections wrote that there are “many factors” that contribute to an inmate’s movement to close management.
“Inmates are often moved if they commit acts that threaten the safety of others, threaten the security of the institution, or demonstrate an inability to live in the general population without abusing the rights and privileges of others,” the spokesperson wrote. “Inmate Smith was moved for multiple disciplinary infractions. Inmate Williams was moved for behavior that posed a security risk to staff and inmates.”
A third inmate, Corey Sutton, a 21-year-old housed at Franklin Correctional Institution, was sentenced to 58 years at the age of 14 for a sexual battery charge he says he didn’t commit. Tuesday, Sutton’s mother told IWOC that he was placed in “confinement” for charges of alleged gang activity and participation in the strike. The Florida Department of Corrections claims the boy was never confined.
Sutton says the complaints against him were based on an email he sent to his mother earlier this month which made reference to “black August,” a month-long celebration of black history started in the 1970’s by black liberation activists, Smith told The Daily Beast.
The group has so far only made the three individuals names public on their website, but there are likely more out there, Smith said. Inmates face substantial risks for coming forward with their stories.
“It’s dicey game to make people’s names public,” Smith said. “Once their names are out, they can get more heat on them. And if they’re in a position where they are fighting an allegation it can be pretty difficult.”
More details on the strikes will likely appear in the coming weeks, she said, as there can be substantial delays in getting information from prisoners, officials and FOIA requests.
“We’re just starting to get some word. It can take weeks to get a clear idea of what’s going on,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “Especially since the prison administration’s first response is usually to deny activity.”
Already, IWOC has confirmed five Florida prisons on lockdown. Another Florida prison, Smith said, has not declared lockdown status, but is limiting inmate movement in parts of the facility. A family member reported to IWOC that inmates are being held in a shower.
In a statement to the Daily Beast, the Florida Department of Corrections denied that any facilities had declared an official lockdown.
In a press release Wednesday, representatives from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and IWOC confirmed additional strike activity in prisons ranging from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Washington, and California, as well as solidarity actions in 21 American cities, and several foreign nations, including Germany and Palestine.
“Today, we extend our solidarity to the prisoners in the jails of the United States participating in the national prison strike beginning on August 21,” wrote the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group of imprisoned Palestinians in Israel, in a statement released Wednesday. “Black communities, Latino communities, Arab communities are under attack, facing mass incarceration and a system that seeks to imprison and exploit rather than support and nurture youth and elders.”
Smith says some of the inmates are fighting their strike-related charges. In an Inmate request form obtained by The Daily Beast, Julius Smith wrote that he was “currently under investigation” for “the Aug. 19th protest.” (The protest actually began August 21).
“I am in fear of my safety at this institution,” Julius wrote, “and would like to transfer from here.” According to Smith, the officials cited in the report are likely to be the individuals who will hear his case and decide it.
“That’s one of the demands of the strike,” Smith told The Daily Beast. Among the ten-point list of demands, activists are calling for an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 1997 law that makes it more difficult for prisoners’ to file federal lawsuits. “This system leaves no recourse for people like Julius,” Smith said. “That’s what leads to situations like this strike. It’s the only action they can take.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout.