One of the more curious developments in recent months has been the bipartisan effort to pass the First Step Act, a “prison reform” bill that was approved by the House of Representatives in May. If passed by the Senate, the bill will lead to some minor improvements in the treatment of prisoners currently incarcerated in federal prison. However, the bill won’t reduce mandatory minimum sentences, nor will it give judges the discretion necessary to show leniency during sentencing. It is for this reason that dozens of civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have consistently opposed it. On the other hand, the bill has received enthusiastic support from people like Jared Kushner and the Koch Brothers, demonstrating its toothless character.
The First Step Act is currently stalled in the Senate due to opposition from conservatives opposed to any sort criminal justice reform. The bill also faces opposition from some Senate Democrats who admit that it fails to seriously address the problem of mass incarceration. In this vein, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, two of the more ambitious Democratic politicians, have come out against the bill, likely viewing it as an opportunity to distinguish themselves and boost their political profiles. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa has also voiced opposition to the bill. Grassley, along with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill had sponsored a rival bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), which would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for several drug-related offenses, although convicts would still face decades behind bars. The SRCA eventually lost out to the much weaker First Step Act.
It bears mentioning that, should the First Step Act be passed, it would only apply to the people currently incarcerated in federal prison. But according to the Prison Policy Initiative, out of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the US, only 225,000 are held in federal prison. The vast majority of prisoners in the US are incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.
The cynical maneuvering around this bogus “reform” bill once again reminds us that we can’t expect the venal political elite to bring about genuine change. Such change can only be achieved by direct action on the part of those oppressed and exploited under our capitalist, white supremacist system, of which mass incarceration is a defining feature.
The good news is that prisoners across the US are about to launch their own direct action campaign. Indeed, on August 21, an unprecedented nationwide prison strike will begin. The strike was called by prisoners in response to the deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution, an overcrowded maximum security prison in South Carolina where inmates must endure inhumane conditions. 7 prisoners were killed in the riot last April, which was instigated by prison officials.
The prisoners are going on strike to demand humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and an end to prison slavery. Some of their other demands include rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act and giving prisoners a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights, an immediate end to over-sentencing and parole denials of Black and brown people and an end to sentences without the possibility of parole.
The strike will see prisoners refusing to work, participating in sit-ins, refraining from spending money and engaging in hunger strikes. The precise tactics will differ from prison to prison depending on the needs and concerns of the people confined there. The strike has been endorsed by dozens of left-wing organizations and prison abolitionist groups including the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council and the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement. Prisoners are asking supporters on the outside to spread the word about the strike, attend solidarity demonstrations and pressure elected officials to accept their demands.
The imprisoned humans who will participate in the strike are doing so at great risk to themselves. In recent years, prisoners fighting for more humane conditions have been punished by vindictive officials at prisons across the US. When prisoners in Florida launched a labor strike last January to demand fair wages, prison officials responded by throwing strike organizers in solitary confinement.
The national prison strike couldn’t have come soon enough. American politicians love describing other countries as ‘failed states,’ but what do you call a country that incarcerates so many of its own citizens? Most people are already aware that the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Less well known is the fact that the US has more people (536,000) detained before trial than most countries have in their prisons and jails combined. The poor are forced to rot in jail while waiting for trial while the rich can afford to buy their way out. In 2015, this class-based justice system claimed the life of Kalief Browder, a prisoner at New York’s Rikers Island jail who committed suicide after enduring torture and solitary confinement. Browder had spent 3 years awaiting trial at Rikers after he was accused of stealing a backpack at the age of 16.
Mass incarceration takes a devastating not only on prisoners, but on their families and communities as well. More than half of the people in prison are parents to minors. The families of incarcerated people, often impoverished to begin with, are largely abandoned by the state. Studies have shown that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to forego medical care and use hard drugs. They also have higher rates of depression, PTSD, asthma and HIV.
The prison system exist because the ruling class needs a place to keep those who come out on the losing end of their rotten system. In a country where the richest .01 percent own 90 percent of the wealth, scores of people are denied a chance at a decent life. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that some people end up resorting to crime when their only other options are minimum wage jobs or joining the military. The real criminals are those at the top of the capitalist hierarchy, the beneficiaries of a system based on exploitation. The upcoming prison strike is a rebellion against structural oppression and inequality. It deserves your support and solidarity.