On Tuesday (August 21), incarcerated people around the nation began a peaceful protest, with some sitting in, others abstaining from eating and many refusing to report to jobs that don’t pay a prevailing wage or even set them up for gainful employment after their release. The goal of the Nationwide Prison Strike is to win comprehensive reform of the American carceral system, from sentencing guidelines to labor rules to voting rights.
In his essay “Prison Labor is Modern Slavery. I’ve Been Sent to Solitary for Speaking Out,” which was published today (August 23) by The Guardian, Kevin Rashid Johnson details why the strike is so important—and why he refuses to be silenced.
I resist, they retaliate.
I have always refused to perform labor inside prison, ever since I was convicted of murder in 1990 when I was 18 years old. (I have consistently challenged my conviction on grounds that I was subjected to a misidentification and am innocent.)
I see prison labor as slave labor that still exists in the United States in 2018. In fact, slavery never ended in this country.
At the end of the civil war in 1865 the 13th amendment of the U.S. constitution was introduced. Under its terms, slavery was not abolished, it was merely reformed.
Anybody convicted of a crime after 1865 could be leased out by the state to private corporations who would extract their labor for little or no pay. In some ways that created worse conditions than under the days of slavery, as private corporations were under no obligation to care for their forced laborers—they provided no healthcare, nutritious food or clothing to the individuals they were exploiting.
Johnson, who is participating in the strike by boycotting the commissary and was a co-founder of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, also details the forced labor he’s witnessed.
Though I’ve always refused to engage in this modern slavery myself, I’ve witnessed plenty of examples of it. The most extreme were in Texas and Florida, where prisoners are forced to work in the fields for free, entirely unremunerated.
They are cajoled into chain gangs and taken out to the fields where they are made to grow all the food that inmates eat: squash, greens, peas, okra. They are given primitive hand-held tools like wooden sticks and hoes and forced to till the soil, plant and harvest cotton.
They are watched over all day by guards on horseback carrying shotguns. Elite posses of prisoners are used to keep other prisoners in line, through open coercion and violence.
Prisoners who do not agree to such abject slavery are put in solitary confinement. I know from personal experience.
Apart from six months when I was in general population in Oregon, I have been held in isolation cells without pause since 1994.
Johnson, who is serving a life sentence, closes with the knowledge that he will likely face retaliation for publishing this essay.
I am far past the point where threats concern me.
In the past three decades I have been endured every level of abuse they have to offer: I have been starved, beaten, dehydrated, put in freezing cold cells, attacked with attack dogs, rendered unconscious, chained to a wall for weeks. There’s nothing left to fear.
Read the full essay from The Guardian.