Photograph by Allyn Suzuki
Members of the Oakland and Sacramento Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committees (IWOC), East Bay and San Francisco chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Workers World Party, and other organizations gathered at the West Gate of the San Quentin State Prison in solidarity with the National Prison Strike on Saturday, August 25. Members of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter observed the mobilization.
The National Prison Strike commenced on Tuesday, August 21, the 187th anniversary of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, and will continue through September 9, the 47th anniversary of the Attica Prison riot.
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, which is an incarcerated group of prisoner rights advocates, called for the strike in a press release issued in April, that said it was “in response to the riot in Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in South Carolina.”
The Workers World Party Bay Area branch and various other organizations successfully co-organized the event. Tova Fry, an organizer with the branch spoke at the event. “The guards intentionally started… a fight… the prisoners were… locked into the yard… whatever [the guards’] intention was, it was at the sacrifice of seven prisoners’ lives,” said Frye of the riots in North Carolina.
The press release listed ten demands, which called for the repeal of various pieces of legislation, voting rights for “all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ‘ex-felons,’” a greater focus on rehabilitation, pay increases for imprisoned laborers, better conditions, more Pell Grants, and “an immediate end to… overcharging… Black and brown humans.”
IWOC, which is a part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and its eight hundred prisoner members endorsed the strike alongside many other organizations such as the DSA.
The strike succeeds the last nationwide prison strike, which was in 2016 and the largest one to date at the time. This time, detainees at immigrant detention centers have also joined the strike. For example, immigrants detained in Tacoma, Washington’s Northwest Detention Center have gone on a hunger strike. “It’s really beautiful to see these movements come together,” said Sarah Allen, San Francisco DSA and Abolish ICE SF organizer. Allen said the common root cause of deportation and incarceration was nationalism.
Prisoners and detainees have been asked to strike however they can, whether it be through work strikes, hunger strikes, boycotts, or sit-ins.
“We have comrades in facilities across the country in seventeen states saying that they’ll do a number of different actions to support the strike,” said Cole Dorsey of Oakland IWOC. “The problem is that there’s a media blackout; we won’t find out the full extent of what exactly has gone on until a week or two,” he added. Dorsey said this was a common tactic used by prisons to suppress collective action.
The East Bay chapter of the DSA is supporting the strike with what are called phone zaps: many people call particular detention facilities and prisons where those detained are on strike. Callers command the facilities to meet the demands of those on strike, all at once which flusters the facilities.
“There’s too many of my friends that will never get out. The system is designed that way. This whole society needs to be reorganized. Many of these actions that people are going to prison for are because of the conditions of capitalism,” said Dorsey.
Lora Lempert, Professor Emerita at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, said prisons “have been plantations” since the nineteenth century, and even violent crimes could be tied to unfavorable economic circumstances. Lempert advocates for the allocation of resources away from prisons and towards social welfare programs. Pop singer Zedgar Infiniti said, “I would advocate for the complete abolition of prisons as an institution.” Infiniti also said he believes in defunding the police in order to fund mental health programs and community-oriented policing.