In 2016, prisoners across the United States decided to come together and protest their conditions through a coordinated hunger strike.
Problems and Purpose
The problem being addressed is slavery being legalized through a loophole in Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which reads: "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" . The prisoners also protested the unfair treatment and conditions imposed upon them by the current system of legalized slavery in the United States. With their concentrated effort and citizen action, they hoped to garner enough attention to all of these issues that they faced from the wider public to effect a change in policy that would treat them more humanely than the status quo at the time.
Background History and Context
In the United States in 2019, about 2 million persons were incarcerated. This number was a third larger than the prison population of China, which is five times more populous than the U.S. The United States has a quarter of the world's prisoners, but only one-twentieth of the world's population . These numbers have led to what many now term as the “Prison Industrial Complex”  where the vast majority of prisoners are seen as nothing more than capital or products to be utilized for the profit of a few.
Over the years, there have been many times where prisoners and their supporters have pushed back with legislation or direct action; one of the most famous was the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971. Slade (2012) describes the background of the uprising as beginning with the murder of George Jackson, a famed prisoners’ rights activist and Black Panther Party leader. His murder at San Quentin prison led the prisoners in Attica to create a manifesto and call for a meeting with the governor to discuss their grievances. However, after much stalling, the prisoners became angry and on September 9, 1971, the uprising began with the overpowering of the prison guards and leading to the control of the prison by the prisoners. For the next few days, back and forth negotiations were held to end the stalemate until September 13th 1971 when authorities decided to take back the prison by force, leading to the deaths of 39 people . During the 1970s and 1980s, prisoners and advocates in the U.S. used the legal system and other mechanisms to protect prisoners' rights .
Years later, a few different prison organizations united with prison leaders and called for a national prison strike on September 9, 2016, forty five years after the Attica Prison Uprising. These organizations included the Free Alabama Movement and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee among others. They did this after a similar event took place within California: From July to September 2013, nearly 30,000 prisoners in 33 prisons across the state participated in a hunger strike to protest their conditions and the use of solitary confinement in maximum-security prisons . Following these previous examples, the 2016 strikers chose to incorporate many of the tactics, including the hunger strike, in their own actions.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Since this was a strike against governmental institutions, there was no government involved at all except for the attempts to end the strike. The strike was carried out solely through the organization of prison leaders across the country and the outside organizations working to bring attention to what was happening. The two main organizations involved were the Free Alabama Movement and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The nature of this strike made it that only prisoners were involved from the inside although there were outside organizations assisting as well. The prisoners were able to organize themselves "through a network of smuggled cellphones [and] social media pages" . Despite these restrictions, at least 24,000 prisoners across at least twelve different states participated although this is difficult to independently verify as prisons and officials have a vested interest in suppressing or misrepresenting any information on protest activity . All evidence so far indicates that all prisoners who participated volunteered, or were told by fellow prisoners about this strike.
Methods and Tools Used
There were one method and two tools chosen to spread the word and accomplish this action. The first method was the use of smuggled cell phones to spread awareness through text messaging. The second method was social media, which at the time was extremely useful because of its far-reaching ability. Once these two tools had been utilized in advance, the agreed-upon method the prisoners chose to protest with was to call a strike. This strike included the actions of work stoppages and refusing to take meals.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Once everything had been decided, the prisoners chose to hold their strike on the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising, which occurred on September 9, 1971, as a way of honoring that past effort at change, and as the best way to raise attention to their current demands, especially ending the Thirteenth Amendment's loophole allowing slavery. The leadership of the 2016 strike is difficult to ascertain; however, the two main organizing groups were the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), each of which released its own set of demands. The IWOC released a call to action on its website , whereas the FAM gave a statement on the first day of the strike . As the strike was against the law and therefore needed to be done surreptitiously, prisoners organized themselves through online interactions and were able to do so with some smuggling involved. Although the strike was a national movement, it received sparse coverage by the mainstream media, while at the same time reviews for the documentary film entitled "13", which detailed many of the reasons why the strike was being held, were everywhere. However, there were a few outlets that did give the strike some coverage such as The Intercept, Democracy Now! and The Guardian, amongst others. Little news or evidence can be found about how the strike effectively ended, but most seem to agree that it came to an end around two months after it had begun.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The prison strike seemed to have ended after two months, with most leaders and involved prisoners targeted for punishment . However, two years later another national prison strike was called for, following the deaths of seven prisoners at Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina, with the major difference this time around being the media seemed to pay more attention . The strikers of 2018 released a list of demands to the media through a trusted ally . Although there are numerous examples of prisoners facing retaliation for participating, there seems to be a general sense of determination that the defeats of today will not stop the progress towards the victories of tomorrow.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Two authors summarize succinctly the primary lessons from this citizen participatory action experience. First, Alice Speri concluded that the fact that "[p]risoners…were able to coordinate a collective protest of this scale, with all its limitations, is testimony to their determination that the prison system needs radical change" . Secondly, Dan Berger wrote, "[t]hese dissident prisoners have developed strategies to survive and challenge authoritarian regimes. Against isolation and brutality, prison radicalism combines defensive campaigns for survival, broad-based coalitions of support, and courageous actions to advance alternative visions…capable of achieving meaningful change" .
Though the 2016 strike was historic in its collective action, it did little to actually effect changes in policy, as the conditions and amendment being protested are still in place to this day. Nonetheless, prisoners across the country have shown that they are still willing to work to make those changes happen. Mangaaka Ade sums up this feeling: “No regrets” .
 Montague, A. (2016, October 5). Thousands of prisoners strike 'to end slavery' across the United States. Socialist Action. https://socialistaction.org/2016/09/18/thousands-of-prisoners-strike-to-end-slavery-across-the-united-states/
 Peláez, V. (2019, September 13). The prison industry in the United States: Big business or a new form of slavery? GlobalResearch. https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289
 Slade, K. E. (2012). [r1] Attica State Correctional Facility: The causes and fallout of the riot of 1971. The Exposition, 1(1), Article 3. https://digitalcommons.buffalostate.edu/exposition/vol1/iss1/3/
 Lovett, I. (2013, September 5). Inmates end hunger strike in California. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/us/inmates-end-hunger-strike-in-california.html.
 Speri, A. (2016, September 16). The largest prison strike in U.S. history enters its second week. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2016/09/16/the-largest-prison-strike-in-u-s-history-enters-its-second-week/.
 Berger, D. (2016, November 18). Rattling the cages. Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/prison-strike-slavery-attica-racism-incarceration/.
 Ade, M. (2019, June 28). We thought our prison strike was a success. Then came the officers in riot gear. The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/06/27/we-thought-our-prison-strike-was-a-success-then-came-the-officers-in-riot-gear.
 Lewis, N. (2018, August 24). What's really happening with the National Prison Strike? The Marshall Project. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/08/24/what-s-really-happening-with-the-national-prison-strike.
 Davis, A. Y. (1998, September). Masked racism: Reflections on the prison industrial complex. Colorlines, pp. 11-17.
 Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. (2017, January 11). 2016 prison strike call to action: This is a call to action against slavery in America. https://incarceratedworkers.org/resources/2016-prison-strike-call-action
 Free Alabama Movement. (2016, September 9). Press statement: Sept 9 nationwide protest, workstrike, boycott, and demonstrations. https://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/press-statement-sept-9-nationwide-protest-workstrike-boycott-and-demonstrations/
 SawariMedia. (2018). National prison strike. http://sawarimi.org/national-prison-strike
 Chase, R. T. (2020). We are not slaves: State violence, coerced labor, and prisoners' rights in postwar America. University of North Carolina Press.
The original submission of this case entry was written by Abraham Kahasay, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The views expressed in the current version are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.