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A mass incarceration expert says the 2018 prison strike could be “one of the largest the country has ever seen”

Lauren-Brooke Eisen explains what to expect from the strike.

A prisoner clutches at prison bars.
A national prison strike began on August 21 across 17 states in the US.

To protest unfair treatment in the criminal justice system, prisoners across 17 states from coast to coast have started what they expect will be a nearly three-week prison strike — it began on August 21 and ends on September 9.

Prisoners will conduct work stoppages, hunger strikes, and spending boycotts in the hopes that their list of 10 demands is met. Vox’s German Lopez has explained the treatment of incarcerated Americans, the reasoning behind the strike and its technicalities in detail.

The prisoners are protesting many issues — including an exemption in the 13th Amendment allowing them to be forced to work for pennies a day. They are led by a slew of organizations, including Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

I spoke with Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice and the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the historical context behind and efficacy of what has the potential to be “one of the largest prison strikes that the country has ever seen.” We discussed why the 13th Amendment still allows prisoners to work for very low pay, the historical resonance of this strike, and the likelihood that the prisoners’ demands will be met.

Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Why the dates of the prison strike are significant

Jennie Neufeld

The prison strike starts on August 21 and ends on September 9. What is the historical context of these dates?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

August 21 is the day that George Jackson died. Jackson was an African-American activist and author incarcerated in the San Quentin Prison on the West Coast. He founded the Maoist-Marxist Black Guerrilla Family. In 1971, Jackson was accused of taking several guards and a couple of incarcerated people hostage in the San Quentin Prison. He was shot and killed by a correction officer. About five other hostages died at the facility.

Then it ends September 9, which is a really significant date because that is the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising in upstate New York. It really captured the eyes of almost every American in this country. The prisoners, about 1,300 incarcerated people inside the prison, had taken control of the prison, seized hostages, and issued demands.

Some of these demands were focused on better medical care. They were charging at the time that there was abuse and racially discriminatory treatment. There was chronic overcrowding. And these demands were broadcast to a national television audience at the time. Considerable blood was shed at this uprising — after the fifth day of the riot, 39 people were dead.

What a lot of people are less familiar with is that 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were dead and then 118 had been shot. The 1972 New York Special Commission on Attica called it the bloodiest encounter between Americans since the Civil War.

Jennie Neufeld

Is that why it was so significant?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

The reason that that riot is so significant is because it received a lot of media coverage. It was on the front page of the New York Times, it was broadcast on television screens nationwide and a lot of historians who studied mass incarceration in the US have pointed to Attica as one of the many reasons that the US turned toward a more punitive stance toward those who violate the criminal code.

Part of it is the fear of Americans. What they saw on the television screens, on their newspapers, were prisoners taking control of a prison and 39 people dying and 118 people being shot. But what’s really interesting is that a lot of the people who died were shot by state police, and there was a big cover-up by the New York State police. This riot could have ended peacefully, but the New York State police sort of ran in there and started shooting up the prison.

Jennie Neufeld

Would you say the justice system was more lax before the Attica Prison riot?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

It wasn’t that the prison system was more lax. People look around today and they say prisons are overcrowded — and they are: We have 2.2 million people behind bars in this country. That’s including jails, state prisons, federal prisons; [Americans make up] about 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people; we have more jails and prisons than any other country on the planet; more people behind bars than any other on the planet.

But the conditions in these prisons in the 1970s were not good. Most prisons in this country were overcrowded at that point. By the mid-1980s, I would say that three-quarters of states were under some sort of court order to reduce their prison population because of inhumane, inadequate conditions behind bars. And in 1971, the incarcerated people behind the walls of Attica were talking about inadequate medical care and this overcrowding and the way that the corrections officers were treating them.

But when we talk about the more punitive turn that the country took, that is really aimed at our laws and our policies: our three-strikes law; the Truth and Sentencing Act, which requires that incarcerated people spend 85 percent of their time behind bars of their sentence time; increasing the number of crimes that are on the books; increasing the number of drug crimes; increasing the penalties for drug crimes; life without parole.

And it’s not just the laws, it’s also our more punitive stance toward those who violate the criminal code, specifically African Americans and Latinos.

I’m one of those people who feel that the Attica uprising was a really significant moment in our history when it comes to criminal justice and our nation’s attitudes toward criminal justice. In the ’60s, our country focused on what’s called the rehabilitation model of corrections — the idea was that those who violate the criminal law are either sick or they committed a crime because they’re not well and they need rehabilitation.

We saw a sea change after the Attica uprising, and by the late ’70s, rehabilitation was no longer the keyword. The significance of these two riots is very important for those who are behind bars today who feel that they still have inadequate medical care, they still fit in overcrowded facilities without the requisite number of correctional officers. They still feel that they are not treated well. They still feel their grievances are not heard.

Jennie Neufeld

What other prison strikes may have inspired this one?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

Prison riots are very common. There are often riots in specific facilities and they tend to just be within that one prison. Recently there have been more prison strikes.

There was one in the summer of 2016, and that was a strike that 50 facilities participated in. A lot of the men and women behind bars refused to eat and refused to go to their programming until they felt that their grievances were heard. With the increase of communications and email, telephones, it’s a little bit easier to organize across multiple prisons. Some of them are peaceful, some of these strikes are peaceful.

These strikes are not so common in the sense that they may happen every couple of years because it’s a lot of organizing on the part of the incarcerated people to work with other incarcerated people in other facilities. But this one was also spurred partly by what’s happened at that Lee Correctional facility and the death of seven prisoners at that facility and the injustice that a lot of people behind bars feel was perpetuated in that facility.

What the 13th Amendment has to do with prison labor

Jennie Neufeld

Why do prisoners strike or riot because of the 13th Amendment?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

Slavery is explicitly outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. They adopted the amendment that ended slavery as we know it in the US. What some people are less aware of is that in the 13th Amendment, slavery was deemed unconstitutional with the exception of the punishment for a crime: “whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” So what this means in practice is that slavery was abolished in the United States except for prison labor.

Our history of the nation is really inextricably intertwined with racial discrimination, with slavery. This has been perpetuated since the end of the Civil War. With the system of Black Codes in the southern states that criminalize minor crimes, with the Jim Crow laws during the Reconstruction Era, black men were sent to jail.

Convict leasing really supplanted slavery, because a lot of white plantation owners and people who were building railroads, or mining would pay money to these jailers, to lease these black prisoners to work on railroads, to work on mines. And then, eventually, convict leasing was eliminated because so many people, so many black people died through this convict leasing labor, terrible conditions working on the railroads and the mines.

Today, blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in our jails and in our prisons. Even in 2018, prison labor is constitutional because the 13th Amendment deemed that if you are convicted, that’s the one exception to slavery.

Do prison strikes work?

Jennie Neufeld

What has been the typical efficacy of an average prison strike?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

The demands are rarely met. I would say the efficacy is more in the world, the government, and people who are not incarcerated understanding and seeing that incarcerated people are not the other; that they have a voice; that they have a significant voice; that some of their demands are quite rational. There’s very little evidence that most of these demands are met after these prison strikes. It’s my hope that none of these turn violent and that these are all very peaceful protests and discussions.

I think that when we talk about efficacy, these are also, some of these are tough public policy problems. You have a lot of people working to make change, to change laws, to reduce time. There is a lot of support for what these incarcerated people are going on strike for. But these are very, very political issues that a lot of people are advocating to change. I think the significance here is that incarcerated people are lending their voice to what’s happening. It’s not just public policy organizations, it’s not just policymakers. It’s that the people who are most impacted by these laws, by these policies are saying, “We want change.”

Jennie Neufeld

Would you say that these incarcerated people know, going into this, that many of their demands might not be met?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

I don’t want to speak for them, but I think history illustrates that there’s little evidence that marked change occurs as a result of these strikes. That doesn’t mean that they’re not important, and it doesn’t meant that their voices aren’t heard. I think there’s hope on the part of incarcerated people that they will be heard. I think for everyone who is striking, they may have their own reason to do so. They may want one specific demand to change or they just might want to feel a part of a group that is saying, “We want change to conditions of confinement, we want change to our criminal justice policies.”

Jennie Neufeld

What are inmates asking for on this list of 10 demands?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

Some of these demands are the same today as they were at Attica in 1971. Demand 22 for the Attica prisoners was “we demand an end to the discrimination in the judgment and quota of parole for Black and Brown people.” Demand 24 was also about ending discrimination. Demand 2 was a change in medical staff and better medical conditions.

If you look at the set of demands that these current incarcerated people are asking for, they’re also focusing on improvement of conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women. One of their demands is an immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing and parole denials of black and brown humans. That’s so similar to the original demands of the Attica prisoners.

The first demand is immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women. This goes to the heart of the conditions of confinement, that a lot of incarcerated men and women face in these facilities. We’re talking about overcrowded prisons, we’re talking about time outside in the rec area. They want these prisons to be more humanized. Incarcerated people want correctional officers to see them as humans — not as numbers, not as inmates, not as inmate No. 5, but as a person with a name.

This is 47 years later, almost 50 years later and many of the demands are the same. I think it would make the hairs stand up on your arms a little bit to think that almost 50 years later, incarcerated people are still advocating for some of the same conditions that we haven’t done a lot to change.

Jennie Neufeld

Could this be one of the biggest American strikes?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

I’m looking at this article in the San Francisco Bay View national black newspaper that lists all of the demands. So this says that the call has been taken up inside from coast to coast across 17 different states. That’s pretty significant. That’s a huge strike. It depends on how many facilities. You could have a lot of facilities striking in one state as well. Once it happens, it will be interesting to see what the geographic distribution of this is. It certainly has the potential, I think, to be one of the largest prison strikes that the country has ever seen.

Jennie Neufeld

Realistically, how long until you see all, if not most, of these demands met? That, of course, depends on the administration, progress versus regression, but what is your own estimate?

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

One way to answer this is by looking back at the demands of the Attica prisoners of 1971 and realizing that a lot of their demands were never met and almost 50 years later, these people behind bars are asking for some of the same improvements to the conditions of confinement and better programming and better treatment behind bars.

I think it’s a really important time for policy makers and government officials to look at our system of incarceration in this country and say that there are too many people behind bars, there are too many Latinos and black people represented in our justice system. Let’s rethink our system of mass incarceration and stop sending so many people to prison for so long.

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