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 of the United States Constitution: “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 in order to effect a change in policy that would treat them more humanely than the current status quo at the time.
Background History and Context:
Currently within the United States, there are approximately 2 million inmates in state, federal and private prisons throughout the country…a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people . 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 product 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 9th 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 . Years later, a few different prison organizations united with prison leaders and called for a national prison strike on September 9th 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. Lovett (2013) states that from July 2013 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 government institutions, there was no government involved at all except for the attempts to end the strike. It was solely done 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 Berger (2016) reported that 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 self-volunteered themselves or were told by fellow prisoners about this strike.
Methods and Tools Used:
There was 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 the use of 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 called 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, September 9th 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 is difficult to ascertain: however the two main organizing groups were the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), with each releasing its own version 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 “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 on 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, Lewis ( 2018) reported that 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:
In this author's opinion, though the strike was historic in its collective action, it did little to actually have changes in policy made as the conditions and amendment being protested are still in place to this day.There are a few direct quotes that summarize succinctly what this author primarily learned from this citizen participatory action experience. The first is from Speri (2016): Prisoners…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 . The second is from Berger (2016) “These 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” . Overall this author felt that little in terms of policy change has been enacted, but prisoners across the country have shown that they are still willing to put the hard work in to make those changes happen. Ade (2019) seemingly sums up this feeling within his article, a sentiment that this author shares: he simply ends it with “No regrets” .
 Montague, A. (2016, October 5). Thousands of prisoners strike 'to end slavery' across the United States. Retrieved October 3, 2019, from 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? Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-united-states-big-business-or-a-new-form-of-slavery/8289.
 Slade, K. E. (2012). Attica State Correctional Facility: the causes and fallout of the riot of 1971 (Vol. 1). Buffalo, NY: The author.
 Lovett, I. (2013, September 5). Inmates End Hunger Strike in California. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from 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. Retrieved October 3, 2019, from 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. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from 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. Retrieved October 3, 2019, from 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? Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/08/24/what-s-really-happening-with-the-national-prison-strike.
The first version of this case entry was written by a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.