Rebellion and Reprisals: How outside support can impact the outcome of prison struggles

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On September 9, prisoners in more than seventeen US states are planning a nationally coordinated work stoppage and protest, according to the Incarcerated Workers' Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWOC). IWOC also counts 35 states where numerous captives are aware of the strike and the growing mobilization of outside support. On the date of this writing, that outside support involves events or actions in over fifty cities across the country.

It is likely the strike will kick off in only some of these places, but once it does, it could spread to correctional facilities across the country. We might not know what will happen, but one thing is for sure: prison authorities are paying close attention, and have been especially busy punishing prisoner leaders. Siddique Abdullah Hasan, one of the most public spokespeople for the strike, has been framed in a fake islamophobic suicide bomb plot. Melvin Ray, Kinetik Justice, and Dhati Khalid of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) have been sent to solitary, assaulted and otherwise under constant attack by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). Cesar DeLeon and LaRon McKinley-Bey of the Dying to Live hunger strike in Wisconsin are currently subject to a force-feeding regimen.

If the rebellions continue and expand past September 9, so will the retaliation. In fact, if this will be anything like previous prison uprisings in the US, we can assume that the response will be quite violent, maybe even deadly. But from past historic prison uprisings, we can also learn that the role outside supporters decide to play and are able to play has a significant impact on the outcome.

Narratives of Past Struggles

The September 9 protest is scheduled for the 45th anniversary of America’s most famous prison uprising at Attica prison in New York. On that day, over two thousand prisoners took control of Attica for four days. They held 42 staff members hostage and went to great lengths to negotiate a peaceful resolution before the state sent in the national guard to violently suppress the uprising and regain control of the facility.

During the Attica prison riot, journalists were allowed unto the occupied yard to interview prisoners. This meant that the governor and prison officials were forced to answer questions about not only the events of the takeover, but also about conditions in the prison and the prisoner’s claims of abuse and torture. Notably, Attica occurred at the height of anti-prison struggle. It happened a few weeks after George Jackson was killed, in the middle of Angela Davis’ trial and defense. It was followed by strong prisoner self-defense and self-determination actions in Angola, Walpole, and Walla Walla. During this time, prisoner struggles were not secret things happening on the invisible edges of our society, and people were in active revolt against all the institutions of white supremacy and social control.

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