By Dalvin Brown - USA Today
A nationwide prison strike is in its third day, and while there’s no official count of the number of inmates who have acted thus far, solidarity rallies have popped up across the USin an attempt to pressure the nation’s criminal justice system.
Created in response to a brutal prison brawl that left at least seven inmates dead earlier this year in South Carolina, the 19-day protest involves prisoners conducting labor and hunger strikes, sit-ins and commissary boycotts in at least 17 states, giving it the potential to become one of the largest such rallies in US history.
The goal of protesters is to put an end to what organizers refer to as “modern-day slavery,” a practice where inmates are paid slave wages for labor. Such is the case in California, where prisoners are assisting in efforts to fight wildfires and being paid as little as $2 per day.
"I think the outcome is likely to be greater public awareness about the difficult and inhumane conditions that many prisoners face across the country — an elevated public attention to the broad issues as well as some of the more specific concerns that prisoners themselves have raised," said Toussaint Losier, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of "Rethinking the American Prison Movement."
He added, "One of the difficult problems is that many of the issues that they [inmates] are looking to address are issues of legislation and policies enacted at a federal level. It's difficult for prison officials to make headway on that level."
While inmates inside detention centers peacefully protest, activists outside of the penal system are working to raise awareness by holding rallies in various city squares and outside correctional facilities.
One such rally took place on Tuesday in South Carolina, where former prisoners, prison experts and family members of those involved in the Lee County prison incident delivered a list of demands to Gov. Henry McMaster and Department of Corrections Director Bryan Sterling.
"Prisoners have been organizing themselves for years in anticipation of this very moment," said Efia Nwangaza who attended the rally. She is the director of the Malcolm X Center for Self Determination, an organization that provides prisoner support services.
The 79-year-old activist said some prisons in South Carolina do not meet federally-ordered standards for mental health and rehabilitation programs, which has outraged the local community. "We want them to recognize the humanity, dignity and worth for the people for whom they are responsible," Nwangaza said.
The demands, a total of 10, were arranged by the inmate-based organization Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. The demands include the immediate improvement of prison policies, an increase in prisoner wages and rescinding laws that prevent imprisoned persons from having a chance at parole.
The inmates also are calling for more rehabilitation services and voting rights.
“You can’t just treat people like animals. Yes, we need the prisons. But we need some way of actually rehabilitating these people,” Kelvin Gadson, 40, a former inmate who faced 15 years in a South Carolina prison, told USA TODAY. "Services like that can stop people from being repeat offenders."
"We continue to expect rolling participation at varying degrees throughout the state of South Carolina,” Nwangaza said, referring to the number of prisoners engaged in the strike. “Based on last night's participation, we estimate that at least two-thirds of the prisons in the state are involved."
A secondary protest in planned outside the S.C. State House in the coming weeks.
Video of one Tuesday night protest outside Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center appeared to show people inside the facility flashing cell phone lights in response to protesters on the street.
Rallies also took place outside the Atlanta Detention Center, Hyde Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina, and inside and in front of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, according to fliers and videos shared on social media. Others are planned in Boston and Milwaukee later this week.
The list of participating cities is also set to include Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Boston, among others.
The strike was timed to begin on the anniversary of the killing of jailed African American activist George Jackson. The Black Panther Party member was killed by a guard in 1971 after taking guards and two inmates hostage in an attempt to escape from San Quentin State Prison in California.
The final day of the strike — Sept. 9 — also carries symbolism. That's the day in 1971 that the Attica Prison riots began in New York, eventually leaving more than 40 people dead when police stormed in to re-take the facility.
"I suspect these inmates are not necessarily attempting to get prisoners to sit down at the bargaining table, but to make headway by capturing the general public's attention," Losier said.
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