Prison resistance has been going on for as long as prison has existed. It is enacted by incarcerated people and their loved ones every day, in thousands of ways large and small: in sharing scarce resources like food, stamps and books; in providing critical legal and medical advocacy skills; in refusing to become snitches or informants; in the development of cross-racial alliances despite prison administrators’ best efforts to deploy race as a method of control; in offering an ear to listen, reminding someone that they’re a person, not an inmate ID number.
To fight against the dehumanization and destruction of oneself and one’s community and to act in spontaneous solidarity with others who experience similar conditions does not require a theory, an ideology, or really even a plan. It is instinct.
But there are also times when informal modes of struggle coalesce into organized movements with far-reaching goals. We are in such a moment today.
The call to #EndPrisonSlavery began emanating from Holman Prison in Alabama in 2015. Incarcerated activists with the Free Alabama Movement called attention to the fact that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permits the continuation of slavery for those who have been convicted of a crime.
Incarcerated workers in Texas, California, Georgia, and beyond soon joined the call and began organizing their facilities as well as forging crucial connections with free-world groups. After months of organizing internally, the movement burst into public awareness on September 9, 2016, when it kicked-off the largest prison strike in U.S. history. Over 72,000 incarcerated workers in twenty-two states participated in the strike, which began on the 45th anniversary of the historic Attica Prison uprising.
Despite the intense retaliation and repression faced by strike organizers and participants, more actions soon followed. A nationwide day of action and march on Washington D.C. occurred in August of 2017, and in January of 2018 a Florida-based work stoppage called #OperationPUSH drew international visibility and support. The scale and level of coordination demonstrated in these actions is impressive, and in many ways unprecedented.
And there is more to come. Incarcerated human rights activist Keith “Malik” Washington in Texas has put out a massive call for actions in solidarity with the #EndPrisonSlavery movement to take place on June 19 in honor of a holiday known as “Juneteenth.”
Juneteenth commemorates the day June 19, 1865, on which people in Texas finally found out about the end of legalized slavery, nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. The significance of this holiday to the current moment of prison struggle is immense. Because Juneteenth is meant to be a time for celebrating freedom from enslavement, it must also be a time of reflection on the ways in which this system has in fact been maintained inside prisons walls.
In terms of the types of actions being planned, it’s up to you: everything from banner drops, to film screenings, to disruptive civil disobedience, to street theater, to letter-writing to prisoners, and whatever else your imagination can cook up! People are encouraged to design actions and activities that suit their interests and resonate with their local context.
In thinking about this day of action as well as the holiday it commemorates, it’s important to realize that #EndPrisonSlavery is about much more than uncompensated labor. Prison conditions are deplorable, with most facilities failing to meet minimum human rights standards. They are the very definition of cruel and inhumane, as reflected in the fact that demands associated with these recent strikes go well beyond work-related issues, to include things like access to food and water fit for human consumption, access to needed medical care, and an end to rampant physical and mental torture in the form of individual assaults as well as system-wide policies such as long term solitary confinement.
And so, when we talk about #EndPrisonSlavery we are not just calling out this country’s shamelessness in profit-motivated imprisonment, but rhetorically connecting prison with an earlier institution that demonstrated similar disregard for human life, and for black life, specifically. It is the denial, in a totalizing sense, of the basic human dignity of millions of people, accomplished through the same mechanisms of constant surveillance, gratuitous violence, and restricted freedom of movement that truly ties prison to slavery.
And as with historic slavery, although the prison slave empire was certainly engineered by economic and political elites for their own gain, it is our normalization of this dehumanization—its common acceptance as inevitable and reasonable by the average person—that is most in need of transformation. When we are able to view this level of oppression and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are,” it means that we, too, have lost a piece of our humanity.
So where to begin? Of course, one great way is to respond to the call for actions on Juneteenth. If nothing is being planned in your town or neighborhood, get together with friends to write letters to incarcerated folks, or set up a screening of Ava Duvernay’s documentary “13th.”
And if calling legislators is your thing, you can do that any day! Tell them it’s time to reinstate meaningful access to parole, and to vastly reduce the prison population, period; that profiteering off of incarcerated people and their families for basic necessities must end; and of course, tell them we need to END PRISON SLAVERY!
At any and every moment we can reject complicity with this system. Against incredible odds, incarcerated activists have shown us what resistance looks like; now it’s our turn. Let’s get to work.
Julie Schneyer is a prison abolitionist who started doing activism around prisons and policing almost a decade ago in NYC. She now lives in western North Carolina where she works with a books-to-prisons program that sends free reading material to people locked up in the Carolinas. Julie enjoys various things that she’d have a lot more time to do if prison were abolished.