On the 45th anniversary of New York State’s deadly Attica uprising, inmates at prisons across the United States undertook what’s been called “the biggest prison protest in US history.” The unifying theme is what some call forced labor--often unpaid and un-monitored by the world outside--and others call prison slavery.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. On September 9th, the 45th anniversary of New York State's deadly Attica uprising, inmates at prisons across the country undertook what’s been called “the biggest prison protest in US history.” The grievances are familiar – overcrowding, brutality, poor healthcare and poor sanitation – but the unifying theme was forced labor, often unpaid and un-monitored by the world outside. The protestors call that slavery, which is not necessarily hyperbole. In the 13th Amendment otherwise abolishing slavery, there is an explicit exception for incarcerated criminals.
Back in 1971, when a thousand-some Attica inmates seized control of the prison for four days and 43 people died in the ensuing state police operation, the issue of prison conditions was at the top of the news.
LD BARKLEY (ATTICA PRISONER): We want to apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions. We want to stop the slave labor here. We want to allow all New York State prisoners to be politically active without intimidation or reprisals.
BOB GARFIELD: On this anniversary, the strike isn't exactly dominating the news. Azzurra Crispino is the media co-chair for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, or IWOC, one of the activist groups behind the work strike. While she concedes the coverage of the anniversary protest pales next to 1971, the issues are, she says, back on the table.
AZZURRA CRISPINO: The demands are very similar to the demands that were being made by the prisoners in Attica 45 years ago, when they took over their unit.
BOB GARFIELD: Which is discouraging, in the first instance, the same beef, lo these 45 years later. But I want to focus on the slavery issue. It seems to be the unifying theme, and it puzzles me because under the 13th Amendment forced labor is deemed part of the punishment part of rehabilitation, part of the means to defray the high cost of incarceration. What is the justification for trying to change that, if it's more or less entirely the point of locking people up for their crimes?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: Our position is that instead of locking people up for their crimes, we should really be focused on rehabilitation. So, certainly, work can be rehabilitative but the type of work that prisoners are doing is not. It’s exploitative.
BOB GARFIELD: Because they’re prisons with very limited means of intercommunication, how in the world did they communicate among themselves to coordinate this thing?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: There was a lot of work being done on the ground from a lot of different organizations that were reaching across the razor wire to help prisoners organize. The inmates are organizing themselves within their units, so it’s more than that the outside supporters are sending in a seed to the unit and then that seed is reverberating with the prisoners themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: As anyone who has an incarcerated family member or a friend knows, it’s really hard to communicate with prisoners. Phone calls are monitored, letters are slow, visits are difficult to arrange. Were you able to defeat all of the obstacles that were arrayed before you?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: Yes and no. In Texas, for example, we faced a lot of censorship from the mailroom, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is denying that any strike action occurred. But we had an activist who went and physically visited the unit and when they were on the ground and talking to prisoners and talking to family members, the story that they heard was very different. So visits can be a lifeline but, for the most part, it really has been pen and paper letters and then, in very few cases, smuggled cell phones.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, I want to ask about that. I am an expert on the American criminal justice system because I saw The Night Of, you know, every episode.
I’m aware that there is such a thing as contraband cell phones that find their way into prisoners’ hands. How useful were they in organizing these protests?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: They've been useful, in terms of being able to release video. So, for example, in South Carolina, we were able to get video of maggots in the food after the strike action began.
MALE PRISONER: These are bugs that are found in the corn meal for the last few weeks. As you can see, the bugs are crawling around in the corn meal. South Carolina prison, this is what they’re feeding us.
AZZURRA CRISPINO: It has also allowed for a few prisoners to be able to more easily give interviews themselves.
MALE PRISONER: I’d like to just be identified as D. I am one of the prisoners that is actually partaking in the national strike that was called on September the 9th in the Carolinas.
AZZURRA CRISPINO: It’s certainly not the case that every person who’s striking has a cell phone [LAUGHS] in their cell.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, I don’t want to rub your nose in this but I'm pretty much up to date on the Brangelina divorce –
- but the news of these protests all but eluded me. It just did not get much national coverage. Was it a success, was it a failure, was it something in between?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: Well, certainly, it’s making a noise on the outside. Sixty cities and six countries had protests on September 9th. It is the case that we have not been as much media coverage as we would like. But I am getting a lot of emails and phone calls from journalists who are telling me, I'm not seeing this on the mainstream media but it's all over my Facebook and my Twitter feed, which means that we are reaching the people on the ground who are ultimately the hearts and minds that we need to change. And that really is a credit to our brothers and sisters on the inside who are continuing to strike, even though they are facing horrible retaliation for continuing to do so.
BOB GARFIELD: It breaks my heart to ask this question but the Attica protest, as you mentioned, 45 years ago, was meant to call attention to very similar prison conditions. But had it not resulted in violence and death, it most likely never would have made the headlines 45 years ago, much less history, much less the public consciousness. Did this strike require rioting and lethal force from authorities to escape the prison walls? Was it a flop because it was free of body bags?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: Well, certainly, I disagree that it was a flop, but in Florida, where there was more rioting, we had immediate television coverage, whereas in places like Ohio or Wisconsin or California, where you have extreme hunger strike conditions going on, we’re not seeing as much coverage. So I would ask the mainstream media, to what extent are you complicit in future violence, if it were to arise, if the message that you are sending to prisoners is if nobody dies, we’re not going to cover it?
BOB GARFIELD: Irrespective of how many headlines you got on September 9th, you mentioned you built out an infrastructure to carry on your activities. What's the next move?
AZZURRA CRISPINO: Right now, we’re continuing to support the strikes that are ongoing. I realize that September 9th, from our perspective, was a long time ago, but prison time is different than time outside of the razor wire. We’re receiving reports from inside of prisons where people are telling us, we had no idea that there was a strike happening on September 9th. When is the next one? We want to join in. I'm already hearing people say, this is what I'm planning on doing on September 9th next year.
BOB GARFIELD: Azzurra, thank you very much.
AZZURRA CRISPINO: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Azzurra Crispino is the media co-chair for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, one of the activist groups behind the Attica anniversary strike.