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Fighting the Injustices of Mass Incarceration

Prison strikes and why they are happening

Janos Marton | 10/3/2018, 1:57 p.m.
Earlier this spring, violence broke out in the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, resulting in seven deaths and many ...

Earlier this spring, violence broke out in the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, resulting in seven deaths and many injuries. Incarcerated leaders in the prison system decided they had had enough. Brutal treatment from corrections officers, deteriorating prison conditions, and incredibly long, punitive sentences had led to a condition of hopelessness.

Leaders within the South Carolina prison system began reaching out to incarcerated allies across the country, including the Free Alabama Movement, who had led a prison strike in 2016. A decision was made: It was time to launch a national prison strike to raise awareness around the brutality of mass incarceration — from racist police practices to unjust sentencing laws to the lack of support people experience when they come home from prison.

These demands include significantly reducing the number of people in jail and prison, improving prison conditions, properly funding rehabilitation, and addressing racism throughout the criminal justice system.

None of the demands, taken individually, is new to the criminal justice movement. Many organizations, including the ACLU, have fought against the rise of mass incarceration and the horrendous conditions of American prisons. Yet this may be the first occasion in which incarcerated leaders have coordinated nationally to list their specific policy agenda to end the system that has imprisoned them.

The strike’s organizers emphasized Demand #10, also known as the #Right2Vote campaign, a demand that all American citizens of voting age — including all people in jail, prison, or on parole — have the right to vote.

One organizer noted that the right to vote was the right from which all other rights flowed and stressed the need for people outside of prison to support this change. Presently, only Maine and Vermont permit all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens the right to vote.

The term “strike” itself referred to incarcerated people across the country engaging in various types of nonviolent disobedience within the prison system. This tactic is closely tied with a demand that prison labor be properly compensated, in contrast to what one of the organizers calls “slave labor,” referencing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery but carved out an exception for people who

The ACLU supports the prisoner demands. We believe in lifting up the voices of those who are most directly impacted by the systems that oppress them. Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and nobody is closer than people living inside of America’s jails and prisons.

And while the ACLU has no formal role in the prison strikes that occurred this August and September, ACLU staff and members have fought for decades for many of these issues in the streets, state legislatures, and the courtroom.

Acts of civil disobedience inside of prisons come with serious risks for participants, including severe punishment. Corrections officials should not respond with unjust retaliation. Peaceful demonstrations challenging unjust conditions and practices do not merit placing participants into solitary confinement or adding time to their sentences. Incarcerated people and corrections staff deserve safety, dignity, and the ability to express themselves.

The American criminal justice system is broken. Our country is stronger when people more marginalized and directly impacted by unjust policies organize and raise their voices to demand a better future.

The courageous people who are bringing focused attention to America’s system of mass incarceration deserve our admiration. The time to listen is now.

Janos Marton is the state campaigns manager for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.