From media cutoffs to lockdown, tracing the fallout from the U.S. prison strike

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Prisoners from all over the vast Texas prison system come to the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas to be processed for release at the completion of their sentences. Every afternoon hundreds of former prisoners walk out the front gate and head for the Greyhound bus station two blocks away. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Prisoners appear at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where prisoners are processed for release at the completion of their sentences. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Prisons in some states are withholding newspapers from inmates and attempting to shut down social media accounts operated for them by friends and relatives amid a strike against prison conditions and billions of dollars worth of prison labor.

The passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865 formally abolished slavery, but with a stipulation that enabled plantation owners to use prisoners as a replacement for the lost labor. In recent decades, Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Revlon, AT&T, Target and many other major corporations have made use of prison labor that often pays pennies to the hour, a business plan enabled by the Amendment’s exception. Prisoner duties can also include cleaning laundry, serving food and producing license plates, which reduce government costs.

As a group called the Free Alabama Movement rallied for a Sept. 9 labor strike in spring, prison authorities across the country began clamping down on news and information in ways that the American Civil Liberties Union says may be in violation of the First Amendment.

Amid strike, prisons curtail media access

Texas and Pennsylvania have established statewide bans in their prisons of the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, a 40-year publication largely consisting of articles by inmates, saying that the content could be construed as provocation for disruption. The editor has also received letters from inmates in California, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana and other states that they say are also denying the paper’s delivery, sometimes without giving a reason at all.

Texas earlier this year also started asking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to shut down profiles that are maintained by friends and family in an inmate’s name. Texas prisoners do not have access to the internet.

“The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been seeking to silence my voice,” Keith “Malik” Washington wrote in a letter to the PBS NewsHour Weekend in early December after being asked about aftermath of the strike. “[It] has been trying to find a way to punish me for exposing their misdeeds.” He said he was in solitary confinement at Eastham Unit correctional facility in eastern Texas.

Washington wrote that a day before the beginning of what turned into the country’s largest-ever prison strike, including thousands of inmates across dozens of state prisons, two officers asked him to step out of his cell, handcuffed him and put him in solitary confinement. He had been vocal about his support for the strike and is also a frequent contributor to the Bay View newspaper, which he said provides “much needed light on the midst of darkness.”

When he found out Texas imposed a statewide prison block on the publication — because, as officials said, the paper contained information about the work stoppage — he pointed out that the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the strike had been allowed to enter the prison.

Drawing of Keith "Malik" Washington by  Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, both contributors to the San Francisco Bay View.

Drawing of Keith “Malik” Washington by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, both contributors to the San Francisco Bay View. Photo courtesy of Justin Adkins

Texas correctional facilities confirmed that the Bay View newspaper was withheld because it contained information about the work stoppage, but did not respond to a request for comment about the discrepancy.

The paper’s editor, Mary Ratcliff, has been publishing letters from prisoners for more than 20 years, choosing from about 1,000 submissions from across the country every month. She said that she thinks that correctional facilities are retaliating out of fear, calling it a “censorship epidemic.”

“What they’re ultimately afraid of is that the movement for abolition of prisons altogether will be much more successful than it’s been, particularly with the impotence of no free labor,” she said. “They’re terrified.”

The director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project David Fathi said two of the union’s lawsuits reversed similar censoring in the past and charged that it infringed on the First Amendment rights of inmates and publishers. Inmates are allowed to read and write what they want, unless it threatens security, and people who are not in jail have the right to publish what they want and communicate with inmates, he said.

“It’s important to recognize that when we’re talking about speech between people on the inside and outside, it also burdens the rights of free people who have not been convicted of anything,” he said.

In 2003, a federal judge banned a law in Arizona that had prohibited a coalition from posting online on behalf of inmates on death row, saying the law posed irreparable harm to the First Amendment.

“It was before the era of Facebook,” Fathi said. “It was declared unconstitutional.”

Then in 2012, the ACLU won a lawsuit on behalf of the law journal Prison Legal News that forced South Carolina to lift a ban on its publication at a detention center. Authorities had said the ban was “protecting health and safety.”

Decisions to censor, he said, don’t often serve the purpose the facilities say they do.

The growth of the prison labor force

The Free Alabama Movement has been working for several years to raise awareness about their premise — that prison labor is modern-day slavery. In 1865, the 13th Amendment, which is known as the formal abolition of slavery borne out of the Civil War, had one exception: it didn’t apply to people convicted of crimes.

At the time, former Confederate states feared the loss of their workforce and started passing laws that either targeted newly freed slaves or selectively enforced laws on them.

One racist law included that “All free negroes and mulattoes … found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business,” could be sent to jail.

Then prisons would rent convicts to plantation owners, who had to make less capital investment than slave owners, with even less incentive to treat workers well.

“And ever since that time, the criminal justice system has been a key mechanism for controlling the African-American population,” Fathi said last October during a presentation on mass incarceration at Central Washington University.

In recent decades, laws have continued to incriminate black people while prisons and corporations make money off their labor. The War on Drugs led to sentencing laws that disproportionately affected black people, including a mandatory five-year sentence for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine. Meanwhile, someone carrying powder cocaine, which bears no major pharmaceutical difference, needed to be carrying 500 grams for the same sentence.

Drawn by Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.

Drawn by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper

By some estimates, 25 percent of crack users were black, but they constituted 81 percent of those convicted on crack possession charges, while white people received lesser sentences for cocaine offenses.

Then, “three-strikes” laws gave people automatic life sentences upon their third felony conviction in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement bill, signed by former President Bill Clinton. The bill has been tied to the largest increase in prison population in U.S. history.

Today, the incarcerated population is 4.5 times larger than in 1980, with approximately 2.2 million people behind bars, according to the White House. And black men continue to have the highest imprisonment rate in every age group – at the end of 2014 they were up to 10.5 times more likely to be behind bars than white men.

‘Don’t come. They’re locking us down’

Any convicted prisoners can be required to work. By some estimates, prisoners’ industrial output generates billions in profits a year for private companies. In Michigan, inmates at the Kinross Correctional Facility work for the prison and make $1 or $2 a day for serving hot meals, sweeping floors, raising dogs and other jobs that keep operations running.

A spokesman for the state’s facilities said that the daily rate that Michigan pays its inmates is on the higher end, and that inmates do not need a lot of money because they do not have to pay for accommodations or healthcare.

But hundreds of the 1,300 inmates there participated in the strike, the spokesman said, using the national movement as a flash point while making other demands.

In an interview with Newshour Weekend Evelyn Williams said she could hear sirens when her fiancé, an inmate at the Kinross Correctional Facility who delivers laundry, called her on Sept. 10 as she was getting ready to make the five-hour drive from Farmington Hills, Michigan, to visit.

“He was like, “Don’t come. They’re locking us down’,” Williams said. “I could hear the panic in his voice.”

Williams said she started hearing reports of pepper spray, tear gas, zip-ties, fires being set, broken appliances and assault. In the following days, more than 100 people were transferred. Williams says she waited for a week to hear from her fiancé — he was not hurt.

“They just did a peaceful demonstration,” she said. “It’s difficult for me to watch.”

The facility spokesman said that inmates had bullied others into participating in the strike, and that the act of demonstrating is against the state’s policy because it is dangerous. The facility’s reaction, he said, was for the safety and benefit of everyone involved.

Williams saw it as a successful attempt to further suppress them.

“A lot of the people I talked to, they were saying they regret they had anything to do with it because of the consequences,” she said.

While state facilities maintain their actions are for the safety of inmates, spokesman Pastor Kenneth Glasgow for the Free Alabama Movement said prisoners expected push-back, no matter the justification. Glasgow said they are planning the next phases of their efforts, including protests against some of the companies benefiting from prison labor.

“You can’t sit up here and say slavery should be abolished and then have an exception,” Glasgow said. “Either you have slavery or you don’t. There should be no exceptions.”

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