Florida organizer: ‘Help sustain prisoner strike!

By J. White
January 24, 2018

White interviewed Karen Smith from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on Jan. 20.

JW: Can you provide some background on why this struggle is taking place now?

KS: 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 in Alabama and Ohio movements. Prisoners in Texas have now organized the first ever IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] branch on the inside. Support networks on the outside have been growing. Florida prisoners participated in the 2016 action.

Things are very tense inside the prisons, and the goal is to harness this frustration to develop a long-term strategy, as opposed to spontaneous actions.

In November, Operation PUSH reached out to support IWOC [the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee]. The prisoners developed a list of demands and asked help to get the word out. It is our role to support the demands and strategy developed by those on the inside. There is heavy censorship inside the prisons.

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. Inside Florida, the prisons are crowded, the food is inadequate and rotten, they are understaffed — not because they need more guards. It’s because they need fewer prisoners. Prisoners are charged four times as much for commissary items 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 were KKK members, were plotting to kill inmates before and after they were in prison. One prisoner was found boiled to death.

JW: How do you see this struggle in relation to growing movements like Black Lives Matter, the struggle against police brutality and immigrant rights?

KS: These 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. In 1865, slavery was abolished. In 1868, the prison system in Florida figured out how to perpetuate it through over policing the Black community.

A strike support statement from Haitian prisoners cited the exploitation of undocumented peoples: “They use all immigrants for free labor and then deport them.”

JW: What has been the role of families?

KS: Families have felt so isolated. This is such an important part of the struggle. We have been forming defense groups for families, to surround them when loved ones are incarcerated and build solidarity. We often have to do extra legwork that public defenders cannot do.

We went to demonstrate on June 16 in Tallahassee [the state capital] at the headquarters of the DOC [Florida Department of Corrections]. It was the African-American women, family members, taking the lead to confront the state and demand justice.

JW: What information has been able to get to you regarding the situation inside?

KS: We are finally starting to get some feedback regarding the participation and the retaliation of the FDOC. So far we have heard 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.

The goal of this struggle is to have an organized economic impact. 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 room and board is deducted.

They work in facilities like water treatment, often in toxic environments. They may be at a work camp, where they are slaves on road work, maintenance and cleanup. Finally some have assignments in the facility.

They are supposed to accumulate “gain time,” but this only counts if someone is completely compliant with guards and rules. 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, even a traffic violation, brings folks back into the system. The system is made to fail.

JW: Are there women prisoners participating?

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 were forced to do clean up in unsafe, toxic environments without appropriate gear.

JW: What would you like to tell supporters?

KS: This struggle 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 help sustain it from the outside.

Everyone’s help is needed in spreading the word, supporting families and the heroic prisoners. A call-in campaign is happening on Monday, Jan. 22. To get involved, contact FightToxicPrisons.org or incarceratedworkers.org.