[This article was originally published by the Hampton Institute, a self-described radical working-class think tank aimed at assisting in the formation of organic intellectuals and promoting revolution.]
By Katherine S., Sam J. and Amber B.
The weeks-long prisoner strike known as Operation PUSH formally began on MLK Day (Jan. 15) as a response to the wretched conditions suffered by Florida prisoners, including exhaustive labor for little to no pay whatsoever. The prisoners demand fair payment for their labor, an end to the obscene price gouging in the prison canteens, and the reintroduction of parole incentives for those facing life imprisonment or other lengthy sentences. As it stands, Florida prisoners work collectively 400,000 hours per year in gruelling conditions for the equivalent of at most $600 per person per year – that’s only $50 per month, and most make much less, or even nothing at all, for their labor. In addition, prison canteens charge outrageous amounts for such things as basic hygiene products and phone calls to family and loved ones, resulting in many prisoners being unable to afford these things at all. If they are lucky enough to be released, they are then left with almost nothing to live on. No money, no rights, and no future. That is what the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) offers to those who come through its doors.
To those who remain outside, the FDOC offers only disinformation and blatant propaganda. According to prisoners, prices for basic materials on the canteen “menus” include $17 for a case of soup and $18 for tampons, while the FDOC claims much lower prices : only $0.70 and $4.02 respectively. Despite the fact that nonviolent economic protests in the form of organized prison strikes have been staged in 17 prisons as of January 19th, the FDOC has claimed that nothing at all was happening – even as they rounded up prisoners, confining and even torturing them in retaliation. This misinformation serves not only to deceive and distract the general public, keeping them unaware of the atrocities committed behind bars, but also to prevent the spread of these effective prison strikes and dissuade other prisoners from joining the effort.
The FDOC treats communications and public knowledge much the same as the prisoners themselves: something that must be controlled for the sake of order – their order. They effectively shut down all communications shortly after the strike began, not just to keep the other prisoners from knowing if the strike succeeded, but to keep the prisoners’ lawyers and most of their various support networks from helping to plan their next move. Their tactics included banning the Workers’ World Party newspaper from Florida prisons, an act of anti-communist censorship that mirrors their previous efforts to suppress Under Lock & Key and other politically charged works. What more, they rounded up the suspected leaders of the strike, including long-time communist activist and New Afrikan Black Panther Party leader, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson.
After the FDOC had rounded up the agitators, their friends, and whomever else they felt it necessary to isolate, they began dealing out charges. Some were charged with inciting riots – ironic, given that at this point they still publicly denied that any incident had occurred – and others were accused of even more ridiculous things, like “disrespect.” Others were not charged at all, yet still held in isolation. Rashid himself was not only placed in solitary confinement, but also thrown in a bare cell with an open window in below freezing weather, with no blanket or warm clothes. Make no mistake, this is a form of torture, and the FDOC was (and is) well aware of that. This was purely an act of retaliation. They wanted to send a message to those who might strike back against intolerable conditions with nonviolent, economic protests.
Despite all of this, it was not long before Rashid got the word out to his supporters and his lawyer. They promptly organized a phone blitz against the prison, forcing the FDOC to free Rashid from his illegal isolation and grant him access access to his lawyer. Still, they refused to allow him to see a doctor, despite having spent an extended period in freezing temperatures with no protection from the cold. In spite of all their disinformation, the word has naturally gotten out. Rashid himself wrote a piece exposing the conditions of the prison and the prisoner’s efforts in launching the strike – this act, most likely, is what got him thrown in solitary confinement and tortured under the pretext of having “incited a riot”.
Through the efforts of Rashid and others, we are lucky to know the truth about who really incited the “riot” across 17 prisons in Florida: the FDOC itself. Not on purpose, of course – those in power never intend that the people they ruthlessly oppress will one day gain the courage to stand up to them, let alone organize a large scale strike. However, the conditions faced by the prisoners demanded action. The FDOC has assumed that, under provisions in the 13th amendment (which supposedly abolishes slavery but does allow for criminal prisoners to be used as bonded labor), they could freely exploit the labor of those trapped in the correctional system in the cruelest manner possible. They assumed that they could take advantage of these prisoners’ dependence on the canteen as their sole source of necessities to charge them criminal rates for their basic needs, and that they could lock them away with no chance of parole, leaving them to waste away over decades with no hope for a future or possibility of “reform”. Not so!
When we ask who is responsible for these so-called “riots” in the Florida prison system, the FDOC is clearly the guilty party. It was the FDOC who created conditions so intolerable only the coordinated resistance of the prisoners could resolve them. Unfortunately for the FDOC, the facts show that what they claimed was a “riot” was in reality a well-organized, nonviolent strike. The prisoners simply refused to work uncompensated – a reasonable response given their conditions. In the short-term, their strike has been an unqualified success. They showed the world (and themselves) that organized labor action is possible and effective even behind bars, discrediting all who thought they neither had the right nor the ability to take action. Yet, they still have far to go. The FDOC has yet to give in to their stated demands, and continues to lock up those involved and to deal out absurd charges, resulting in longer sentences and even harsher conditions.
Outside action has been vital to alleviating these conditions. The phone blitz organized against the prison was successful in securing Rashid’s release from torture and isolation. From this example, we can clearly see that outside agitation has the ability to make a real difference. One of the most effective things we on the outside can currently do is to break the communication blockade the FDOC still maintains against the striking Florida prisoners. The strikers have no way to tell their story, no way to speak about the inhumanities they face…but we do, and we must. Many organizations are already extensively involved, not only in helping oversee communication and organization between the prisoners, but to provide a last line of defense against the cruel and unusual punishment dealt to those who resist.
The Workers’ World Party , whose publications have been now banned from Florida prisons, is working tirelessly to support prisoners and speak directly to them about their rights. Black and Pink , a progressive collective of queer activists have organized letter writing campaigns aimed at supporting queer prisoners who feel isolated emotionally and socially, with little or no family or outside support to depend upon. Supporting Prisoners and Real Change (SPARC) and the Incarcerated Worker Organizing Committee (IWOC) are also providing updates and reliable news about the ongoing plight of Florida prisoners fighting back against the FDOC, working to break the FDOC’s news blockade. These organizations, and above all the prisoners themselves, who are currently resisting the ruthless capitalistexploitation and oppression of the FDOC, deserve our highest efforts on their behalf.
Anyone can support this effort simply by making information available, and promoting truth to counter the disinformation and propaganda distributed by the FDOC to try and cover up their crimes. However, there is more you can do for the cause. Many organizations and interest groups are working to free the prisoners still held in isolation and being denied basic human rights as retaliation for their resistance. We must support them and make it clear that these conditions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated by humanity. No matter what, those trapped within the Florida correctional system are people, and the unrelenting exploitation and torture of our fellow human beings cannot be allowed to persist.
So, let us act accordingly.
Victory to the Florida Prisoners!