White interviewed Karen Smith from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on Jan. 20.
- White: Can you provide some background on why this struggle is taking place now?
Karen Smith: This strike is a reflection of a prison movement that has been growing since the Sept. 9, 2016, nationwide prison strike on the anniversary of the Attica rebellion. Prisoners have been organizing inside, like the Free Alabama and Free Ohio Movements. Prisoners in Texas have now organized the first ever IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] branch on the inside. This has been happening over the past few years, and support networks on the outside have been growing as well.
Florida prisoners participated in the 2016 action. It was more spontaneous, but the word has spread. Things are very tense inside the prisons, and the goal is to harness this frustration to develop a longterm strategy, as opposed to spontaneous actions.
In November, Operation PUSH reached out to support works like IWOC [Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee]. The prisoners developed a clear list of demands and asked help to get the word out to the communities and the media. It is our role to support the demands and the strategy developed by those on the inside.* There is heavy censorship inside the prisons and they need outside support.
JW: What is it about this particular time that the prisoners chose to act now?
KS: The people inside and out are being pushed beyond limits: globalization, unemployment, increase in corporate pressure to squeeze profits out of anywhere they can. Inside Florida, the prisons are crowded, the food is inadequate and rotten, and they are understaffed. This is not because they need more guards, it’s because they need fewer prisoners. Prisoners are charged four times as much for commissary items inside as the cost on the street.
The brutality and abuse is overwhelming. Florida has the second-highest death rate in U.S. prisons. It has the third highest per capita segment of the population in prison. One in three African-American men is in the system. Abuse by guards is rampant. In Lake Butler Camp, prison guards, who are KKK members, were found to be plotting to kill inmates before and after they were in prison. One prisoner was found boiled to death in a shower.
JW: How do you see this struggle in relation to growing movements in communities like Black Lives Matter, the struggle against police brutality and immigrant rights?
KS: These movements are all related. The book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, which is banned inside the prisons, exposes the racist role of the prison system in the U.S., creating a prison slavery system. In 1865, slavery was abolished. In 1868, the prison system in Florida figured out how to perpetuate it through racism and poverty. They have maintained it through overpolicing in the Black community.
We received a strike support statement from Haitian prisoners citing the exploitation of undocumented peoples: “They use all immigrants for free labor and then deport them.”
JW: What has been the role of families in building this movement?
KS: Families have felt so isolated. This is such an important part of the struggle now and needs to be focused on. Recently, we have been forming defense groups for families, to surround them when loved ones are incarcerated and help build solidarity. We often have to fill in gaps and do extra legwork that public defenders cannot do until all options are exhausted to help people.
Recently, when we went to demonstrate on June 16 in Tallahassee [the state capital] at the headquarters of the FDOC [Florida Department of Corrections], I stood back and noticed. It was the African-American women, family members, taking the lead in this struggle to confront the state and demand justice for the prisoners.
JW: What information has been able to get to you regarding the situation inside since the strike began?
KS: We are finally starting to get some feedback regarding the participation and the retaliation of the FDOC. So far we have heard that there is strike activity in 17 camps across the state.
Participants are put in confinement and interrogated, told they will be subject to retaliation if they continue to correspond with support organizations. They are “under investigation” as a security threat, labeled gang members and then investigated by the “Security Threat Group.”
Those designated as leaders are put in confinement or transferred. Phones have been shut down at camps. They are replacing the striking workers with new prisoners given job assignments.
The goal of this struggle is to have an organized economic impact, as opposed to the spontaneous rebellions seen in the past.
There are three ways prisoners work in the system. Pride Industries is a convict-leasing system by outside companies (including Whole Foods). Prisoners are paid pennies; $1 a day after their room and board is deducted.
They also work in facilities like water treatment, often in toxic environments. They may be at a work camp, where they are brought out to be slaves on road work, maintenance and road clean up. Finally, some have job assignments in the facility.
They are supposed to accumulate “gain time,” but this only counts if someone is completely compliant with guards and rules, like tucking in your shirt, never being “disrespectful” — it’s impossible!
This is why prisoners are demanding reinstatement of a parole system. All Florida prisoners must do 85 percent of their time, so gain time can only count toward 15 percent and is rarely granted. Once a prisoner is out, they must pay cash for parole time. A slight violation, even a traffic violation, brings folks back into the system, and all that is then lost. The system is made to fail.
JW: Are there women prisoners participating? Have you been able to hear about them?
KS: There are some participating at Lowell [Correctional Institution in Marion County]. It is harder for them to get in contact. You may have heard the terrible conditions these women suffered during the hurricane, when they went for days with no water. Then, they were forced to do clean up in unsafe, toxic environments without appropriate gear.
JW: What would you like us to tell supporters at this time?
KS: Most importantly, this is a struggle that is expected to grow and be part of a yearlong organizing strategy. It was just “kicked off” with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We need to be able to help sustain it from the outside.
Everyone’s help is needed in spreading the word, supporting families and the heroic prisoners inside. A call-in campaign is happening in support of #OperationPUSH on Monday, Jan. 22. To get involved, please contact FightToxicPrisons.org or IWOC at incarceratedworkers.org.
The following call is an excerpt from the full call to action, initially posted online via SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Real Change):
“We are currently forming a network agency within [Florida] Department of Corrections. We are asking all prisoners within the DOC to take a stand by ‘laying down’ starting Jan. 15 until the injustice we see facing prisoners within the Florida system is resolved. We are calling on all organized groups, as well as religious systems, to come together on the same page.
“We will be taking a stand for:
- Payment for our labor, rather than our current slave arrangement
- Ending outrageous canteen prices
- Reintroducing parole incentives to lifers and those with ‘Buck Rogers’ dates.
“Along with these primary demands, we are also expressing our support for the following goals:
- Stop the overcrowding and acts of brutality committed by officers through the FDOC.
- Expose the environmental conditions we face, including extreme temperatures, mold, contaminated water and being placed next to toxic sites.
- Honor the moratorium on state executions.
- Restore voting rights as a basic human right to all.”