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    23 Oct 2016

    Inside America's biggest prison strike: 'The 13th amendment didn't end slavery'

    Richard Castillo has not yet been convicted of the crime – evading police in a vehicle – of which he stands accused.
    But he has been imprisoned since February 2013, including 12 months in solitary confinement. He still has a bullet lodged in his leg from being shot during his arrest, and his hand was broken in 10 places in a raid by guards on his accommodation block in June.
    His son, who turned 10 a few days after his father was imprisoned, is now nearly 14. His four-year-old daughter cries for her father every day, his wife Victoria said.
    On 9 September – the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison riot – Castillo joined tens of thousands of prisoners across the country in a general strike for inmates’ rights, especially against forced labor, which protesters describe as tantamount to modern-day slavery.
    The strike involved inmates in dozens of prisons in 22 states across the country, according to the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (IWOC), who helped organize the strike, and was coordinated using prison visits by family members and advocates and on illicit calls between inmates at different prisons on smuggled cellphones.
    Another inmate who joined the strike was Tony. He spoke to the Guardian over a contraband cellphone from a South Carolina correctional facility, on the condition that his real name and the name of the prison not be used for fear of retribution by prison guards.
    Tony described himself as “part of the prison resistance movement”.
    “Restoring prisoners’ human rights – that’s our objective,” he said. Before going on strike lost him the position, he worked as a wood-scraper, making chairs and tables. At his prison, Tony said, prisoners are forced to work for no pay, sometimes in unsafe conditions – handling chemicals or sawing wood without goggles or the correct masks.
    Working conditions can be unsafe, and there is no compensation in case of injury. When woodshop workers asked for face masks to protect their lungs against the sawdust, they were given cheap paper surgical masks, Tony said.
    Pamphlet in support of the nationwide strike in support of prison workers’ rights in the US.
     Pamphlet in support of the nationwide strike in support of prison workers’ rights in the US. Photograph: IWOC
    “The most recent accident that come to mind was a guy losing his finger on a sawblade,” he said. Access to proper medical care, Tony added, is also below-par. “[He] don’t even know if he’s going to be able to use his hand [again],” he said.
    On 9 September, more than 90 inmates in Tony’s prison joined the strike.
    The total number of prisoners involved in the action across the country is impossible to establish, because contact with prisoners can be limited even for the organizers, and individual prisons are often reluctant to admit any action has taken place. Many wardens simply put their facilities on lockdown to forestall the action completely.
    Alex Friedman, the managing editor of Prison Legal News and an associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a group which advocates for prisoner rights, estimated that about 24,000 inmates took part, making it the largest in history. Cole Dorsey, an organizer for IWOC based in Oakland, put the number of participants as high as 72,000.
    “The 13th amendment didn’t really abolish slavery,” said Friedman, who himself spent 10 years imprisoned in Tennessee. “It permitted exceptions; it restricted, not abolished, slavery in the US.”
    For Friedman, the 9 September strike is part of a groundswell movement among America’s 2.3 million incarcerated people which compares to the civil rights movement or the fight for LGBT equality.
    “These things take generations,” he said. “I think the [9 September] work strike is part of a continuum: they acknowledge, yeah, they’re prisoners, they’re serving their time, but that doesn’t mean they should be exploited, used as slaves, denied medical treatment, held in solitary.”
    Most workers in the South Carolina prison system – as in several other states including Texas – are paid nothing for most of the work they are forced to do. In other states, some may earn between 30 cents and a dollar an hour, which can be redeemed at the prison commissary, which Friedman likened to the company store in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath.
    “In Tennessee, prison wages start at 17 cents an hour,” he said. “So if you’re on the lowest end of the scale and want to send a letter to your family, you have to work three hours to be able to afford a stamp.”
    The California prison system made $58m profit from the work of prison inmates in the financial year 2014-15, according to a study by the Solidarity Research Center, which also found that 4,000 incarcerated workers earn $2 a day fighting California wildfires. 
    The California Prison Industry Authority, which manages manufacturing, service, and agricultural work in 34 state prisons, did not respond to a request from the Guardian to confirm these figures, and a spokesperson for the California department of corrections told the Guardian that they had “no reported strike activities or work stoppage in our state prisons”.
    This claim was directly contradicted by the IWOC. Many inmates in the California system have only just ended a hunger strike, Dorsey said, while 300 others in the Santa Clara main jail have just started a second wave.
    In Merced, Castillo and more than 100 of his fellow inmates went on hunger strike between 9 and 19 September, then again between 30 September and 17 October. The specific demands of the strikers varied from prison to prison; in Merced, Castillo and his comrades had a specific sartorial grievance.
    “There is mass segregation here,” Castillo told the Guardian over a payphone from Merced. “We’re general population, but they’re housing us separate from the general population, [and dressing us] in green and white stripes.”
    That outfit is used for gang members, Castillo said, and it means that those in green stripes are viewed by judges and jurors as dangerous gang members. “They’re giving us maximum sentences rather than minimum sentences,” he said. “We’re getting harsher sentences because of our clothing.”
    Nationwide, the striking inmates, some of whom are still taking part in ongoing hunger strikes, say they have have faced retaliation. Often, they are placed in solitary confinement or face withdrawal of privileges; contraband phones can be confiscated, cutting lines of communication with the outside world.
    Others say they have lost visitation rights or other privileges; some missed court dates or medical appointments because of lockdown or being placed in solitary. Taking part in the strikes can also affect a prisoner’s possibility of parole.
    “What they do is lock you down and replace you with other prisoners who are willing to work,” Tony, in South Carolina, said. “And … if you’re not working on one of these slave jobs you lose all privileges. You have to be doing something or you face punishment.”
    The bars against participation in industrial action are much higher in prison, where there are no national legal protections and guards can often act arbitrarily, violently, and with impunity – another key part of the prisoners’ demands is an end to excessive force by prison officers.
    Castillo, who is still awaiting trial, said that in June his hand was broken in 10 places during a raid when he was shot with a “block gun” – a shotgun-like weapon which fires wooden blocks. His leg and ear were also damaged.
    IWOC’s Dorsey said that as well as block guns, in some prisons dogs had been deployed to control striking inmates. When the strike began in Merced, Castillo said, guards fired a concussion grenade into the accommodation block.
    The Merced County sheriff’s department did not respond to repeated requests for comment about Castillo’s injuries or their response to the action.
    Despite limited media coverage of the strike, Tony in South Carolina still considers the action a success, and said he feels “great” about the future. “It allowed us to tie into other prisoner groups, link up more, know what we’re capable of, what would work better next time,” he said.
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