There were 27 progressive demands made by a united front of Black, Latinx and anti-racist white incarcerated men who carried out the historic Attica Prison rebellion in September 1971.
This was point 8: “We Demand that inmates be granted the right to join or form labour unions.” Point 7 read in part: “We Demand that industries be allowed to enter the institutions and employ inmates to work eight hours a day and fit into the category of workers for scale wages.” The prisoners also demanded adequate health care, such as any worker has as a human right, in or out of prison.
Many of these heroic prisoners were eventually slaughtered by the state troopers of Nelson Rockefeller, then New York’s billionaire governor. These demands could still be made today by the over 2 million prisoners languishing in local, state and federal jails and prisons in the U.S.
For aren’t these prisoners like other workers who are super-exploited for their labor? Are they not workers who come from poor and working-class communities, whether urban or rural? And aren’t these workers being deeply impacted by the coronavirus in hugely disproportionate numbers because they are Black, Brown and Indigenous?
As in so many instances, this pandemic is helping to shine a bright light on the class character of prisons under capitalism. And what is revealed is ugly injustice that has existed for over two centuries.
Prisons do not exist for rehabilitation of those convicted, whether innocent or not. Prisons are not set up to guide people to a productive life beyond antisocial behavior such as theft, robbery, domestic violence, drug possession or killings.
Capitalist laws and courts exist to punish people through extreme brutal force, and not to resolve the root cause of their behavior with knowledge, patience and compassion.
One’s being determines consciousness. If a person grows up in an environment of poverty, unemployment and police occupation, they will have near to little chance to make a better life for themselves.
That is a life under capitalism — that puts the profits of the super-rich before the needs of the people.
And even if there wasn’t a pandemic of COVID-19 now, there should still be a demand to free all prisoners. Because no human being can be expected to survive in small cells under lock and key for 23 hours a day, given rotten food and no showers, sanitation, light or health care, assaulted by guards and more.
But now the pandemic has accelerated the prisons into a full-scale crisis. The inhumane conditions, especially cramped cell blocks where social distancing can never happen, have become a breeding ground for infections and deaths.
It is no wonder that prisoners are fighting for their voices to be heard through their own protests, which have led to the release of prisoners in Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere.
And people ask, Well, where will these prisoners go once they are released? Isn’t it too dangerous to release them? Aren’t they a “threat” to society?
Released prisoners should be treated like the millions of other people being impacted by the pandemic. Their health should be cared for. Community groups should be funded by local and state governments to organize housing for prisoners in empty hotels and abandoned housing. Food should be distributed to them instead of sitting on grocery shelves and rotting. These prison workers should be eligible for unemployment benefits!
There are health care workers, many of whom have been laid off, who could provide vital counseling for prisoners who will need therapeutic treatment and even some social isolation — just not behind bars.
All of this and more could be done with organization on a mass scale even under capitalism. Where there is a will, there is a way.
If ruling-class criminals like those in the Trump administration can run free, don’t we owe it to our class — the working class who control nothing, not even their own lives — to free these members of our human family from the death traps called prisons?
That’s why we say: Don’t wait a moment longer. Free them all NOW!