USA: Prison Struggles Spread Nationwide

Inmates at the Waupun Correctional Facility in Wisconsin began a strike against the abuse of the practice of solitary confinement at the state prison last week. Between six to twelve inmates began refusing food. Inmates can be held in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, sometimes for over a year. Authorities have ordered that the forced feedings continue. This was carried out unusually quickly as previous hunger strikes in other prisons in recent years have been allowed to go on much longer without forced feedings than the hunger strikes in Waupun. Here authorities have resorted to the forced feedings to end the hunger strike as quickly as possible. It is likely that the prison officials don’t want this to spread and become a cause of unrest among the general prison population.

The prison population in the US exploded from the early 1970s onwards with increasingly punitive measures. By the end of 2014 the US prison population stood at approximately 1,561,500 prisoners held in state and federal prisons. [1] The expansion of the US prison system during this time reflects the overall collapse of US industrial production, a “War on Drugs” initiated by the Nixon administration with the explicit intent of locking up exponentially increasing numbers of African Americans specifically (six times more than “whites”) and of the rest of the working class more generally. The US imprisons on average 716 people out of every 100,000, compared to the EU rate of 478 per 100,000. Canada locks up 188 per 100,000. Japan locks up 51 for every 100,000. [2] This situation is the outcome of intentionally punitive policies carried out by the capitalist class for the purposes of beating down working class populations and reducing that part of capital which must go towards the reproduction of labor power. Incarceration in the US is one of the products of this historic crisis of capitalism, of falling rates of profit that has been temporarily delayed at times, but never stopped or reversed.

The hunger strike in Waupun one part of a much larger movement arising within the prisons nationwide that has seen strikes against the slave labor system in the prisons, against overcrowding, against being contracted out to work for private employers, against bad drinking water and many other accumulated abuses. Indeed the current wave of unrest has been the product of a sustained movement erupting in prisons across the country. In

Alabama work stoppages at the Holman, Stanton and Elmore Correctional Facilities began a strike on May 1st and are calling for a nationwide prison workers strike on September 9th, to coincide with the anniversary of the Attica uprising. The press release signed by the Free

Alabama Movement states:

“We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.” [3]

The best place to hit the prison complex is by shutting down the prison industry. These work stoppages have been organized by the prisoners themselves by cell phone and have inspired protests in solidarity outside the walls. There are inherent problems with calling a strike on a certain date in hopes that people will join. September is a long way away for a symbolic date for an event that is three generations past. For those who don’t know what the Attica uprising was, on September 9th, 1971 prisoners rose up in rebellion, taking hostages and issuing demands. After four days of negotiations, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the state police to storm the prison leaving 43 people dead, including 10 prison employees.

Prison guards aren’t paid well, especially in the private prisons. No prison is ever located in a place where there is enough wealth for people to say “no” to the prison machine. Thus the average age for a prison guard in a prison starting work in a private prison in Alabama is 19 and the standard starting wage is $9 per hour. This is the main reason why prisoners obtain things like cell phones and other proscribed items, because the guards aren’t paid enough to not do their business on the side.

Prisoners have one advantage. They don’t have a union to stop their strikes and tell them to go back to work. They also don’t have a Democratic Party machine to tell them to go home and wait till the next election. Outside the prisons most recent strikes and struggles have effectively been called off by the unions who act to stop strikes when they break out to better negotiate a deal with the employers that will allow them to continue their existence while giving the employers all the concessions they could want. When Minneapolis teachers joined up with the nurses who were holding their own picket the union officials separated them and called off the nurses strike. Exactly the sort of solidarity the employing class wishes to avoid. Far from being fragmented, workers are consistently expressing a desire to strike and fight back. The unions have kept a lid on this for the most part. It is in prisons that the unions can’t insert themselves into the class conflict in the usual ways.

A voluntaristic call for a strike to occur is adequate, and the ability to organize a work stoppage in three prisons in Alabama is a great achievement, but that itself isn’t enough to pull this off nationwide. Setting the date for the strike all the way in September gives the repressive forces of the state far too much time to carry out further pre-emptive repression. The timing of the start of the strike with the anniversary of the Attica uprising is inauspicious, especially considering the repression that followed it.



[1] US Department of Justice. Prisoners in 2014. E. Anne Carson. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

September 2015.

[2] Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. Yes, US locks people up at a higher rate than any other country. Washington

Post. July 7, 2015



Friday, July 8, 2016


Solitary confinement must be a particularly unpleasant and frightening thing to undergo, specially if it's long term. But apart from that, official prison-as-punishment bourgeois style doesn't always seem to be all that different from the open prison outside gaol, in which the rest of us imprisoned workers have to pass our days. For surely capitalism as a way of life is the biggest most effective prison ever invented? And the amazing thing about capitalism-the-prison is that most of us don't even know we're in it, because we don't even recognise capitalism for what it is. At least not yet.

Just think about the awful routine imprisonment of a steady job; or regular unemployment; or an unsatisfactory marriage; the tedium of bourgeois education systems; the horror of being made a refugee with no job, no home that wants you, no future. At least, in a proper official prison you get fed, even if in solitary!

So locking a percentage of surplus labour power up in jails, which, as AS explains above is now regular practice in the US, is mere bourgeois rationality. It's either that or send them off to war! But proper official wars take more organising than prisons of course, and can't just be rolled out like that without adequate preparation. This is required the better to fool the workers who will have to fight in the war, succumb to infantile nationalism, and die for capitalism!

Shakespeare said: "All the world's a stage". The players are all of us alienated personages suffering under capital. Shakespeare was right. All the world's a stage and the play all takes place in prison! At least for now. Under capitalism.

The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” With ever-increasing concreteness the spectacle recreates its own presuppositions.

G Debord, Society of the Spectacle

Thanks Stevein for the interesting quote from Debord. I definitely agree with him! "Lonely crowds" a lovely expression.