Florida Prisoners To Launch ‘Operation PUSH’ Strike Against Prison Slavery
“Payment for our labor, rather than the current slave arrangement”
Incarcerated people in Florida have announced a prison strike called ‘Operation PUSH’ beginning Monday, January 15th, coinciding with MLK Day. The organizers plan to disrupt as much economic flow of the prisons as possible by waging a labor strike; according to their statement published on Fight Toxic Prisons, they will not attend shifts in the kitchens, cleaning and laundry services, or facility maintenance services, including other jobs that exploit the labor of prisoners to maintain the prisons. Their demands are noble and straightforward: end prison slavery by receiving fair payment for their labor, stop price gouging through ‘outrageous’ commissary/canteen prices, and re-introducing parole incentives for those with life sentences and inhumanly long sentences.
Their action plan from their statement, which was released December 6th and has since went viral, reads: “By sitting down and doing nothing, each institution will have the responsibility of feeding, cleaning, and all the maintenance. DO THE MATH. The more institutions that have to employ outside contractors, the sooner we will see results.”
An organizer from Operation PUSH spoke anonymously with Brian Sonenstein in an interview for ShadowProof, stating “By law they have to feed us so they’re going to have to find people to cook and serve the food. And everyday that we sit down, we’ll affect the budget for next year.” Both in Sonenstein’s interview with the organizer and in their statement, they make very clear that their goal is to use nonviolent labor protests to hit the economic ability of the prison functions.
“Their weakness is their wallet,” a line from their statement reads. The statement, which could also be called a manifesto, declaration, or announcement, outlines three core demands, but they state the first demand to end slave labor will be the strongest ‘Push.’ They want to earn fair wages, rather than the mere pennies-per-hour, or unpaid labor in many cases, that they currently earn. As Sonenstein notes, the cost of living is extremely, unreasonably high for those in prison: “phone rates within FLDOC are $.04 per minute locally and $.14 per minute for prepaid and collect calls. A prisoner earning $0.20 per hour would have to work six hours to afford a 30 minute local phone call, notwithstanding their other living expenses.”
As Michael Arria noted for Alternet, Florida is one of the few states where prison labor remains legally unpaid. The average hourly wage for a Florida prisoner is between $0.00 to $.32. These are slave wages which make it near impossible for incarcerated individuals to pay for phone calls as previously mentioned, buy products such as hygiene products from the canteen, as well as extremely difficult to buy food.
In their second demand, which focuses on this capitalist price gouging and ridiculously priced items, they state the nature of immense financial burden that takes place when trying to buy canteen items: their hourly wages of pennies is hardly enough to buy anything and the prices cause their families outside the prisons to ‘struggle to make ends meet and send us money.’ The canteen, also known in many prisons as a commissary, is the store-like facility where prisoners can use money earned and money their family members send them to purchase several necessary items — from snacks to supplement their insufficient meals, hygiene products, books, writing utensils and paper, postage, undergarments, etc. — and is essential for retaining basic humanity under imprisoned conditions. As their statement points out, a case of soup that would cost $4.00 in a regular grocery store costs them $17.00 from the canteen — “this is highway robbery without a gun,” they state. Alluding to the impossibility of this system, we’re given a grim picture of both them and their outside families not making enough money to buy basic items such as cans of soup, hygiene products, and other goods due to the high canteen prices.
The third and final of their demands is for the re-introduction of parole incentives for people with life sentences and sentences ending very far in the future (known as ‘Buck Rogers’ dates). Parole is the conditional release of an inmate from their incarceration after they have served a portion of their prison sentence. Parolees remain under supervision and and surveillance for some time, and must adhere to agreed upon parole conditions that, if violated, can be grounds for a return to prison. For many incarcerated people, the hope of parole as a future option is a motivating force for many incarcerated individuals, and it also allows for many pre-release and post-release programs and services, like employment/life skills counseling, halfway house accommodation, counseling/psychological services, specialized community work programs, and family services. Taking parole away from those with lifetime sentences and Buck Rogers dates not only diminishes the possibility of hope from the incarcerated individuals, but also eliminates a plethora of reintegration programs and services.
“Let us demonstrate why these two issues are so important,” they say in their statement. “Take for example someone who has done a ten year bid. In the process he loses all family support and money stops, the letters stop. He finds himself supporting himself the best way he can. In short, the system robbed him of ten years of labor. He has nothing to show for it so now even if he does his ten year bid with no probation or parole, he’s still a convicted felon, and finding a job is very difficult.”
Along with the three aforementioned primary demands, they also raise concern and express support for ending overcrowding in Florida prisons, “acts of brutality by officers that have resulted in the highest death rates in prison history,” the death penalty, and restoration of voting rights. Another important point they highlight are the inhumane environmental conditions they face such as “extreme temperatures, mold, contaminated water, and being placed next to toxic sites such as landfills, military bases and phosphate mines (including a proposed mine which would surround the Reception and Medical Center prison in Lake Butler).”
In Florida specifically, this call for strikes comes just months after Florida prisoners face atrocious results from the wave of hurricane weather that passed through the region. While the majority of Florida state prisons do not have air conditioning, several prisons experiences power outages and flooding following the hurricanes. More over, many Florida prisons were not evacuated, leaving thousands of incarcerated individuals with reported contaminated water supply, full water shutoffs, and in some cases weather exposure. At one correctional facility in the Miami area, even the staff described the prison as a “squalid, un-airconditioned, putrid hell,” so you can only imagine it is twice as bad to be inside of these conditions while physically, structurally constricted.
On December 28th, a group of Haitian prisoners in the Florida prison system penned a letter of solidarity with the efforts of Operation Push, discussing the role of immigrants, immigrant labor, and immigrant exploitation in the system. Calling out the president by name, discussing unpaid prison labor, and the legacy between modern US prisons and slavery, they fiercely state:
“Prisons in America are nothing but a different form of slavery plantations and the citizens of the country are walking zombie banks. There are so many Haitians, Jamaican, and Latinos in the FDOC (Florida Department of Corrections) serving sentences that exceeds life expectancy and or life sentences who are not being deported. They use all immigrants, for free Labor and then deport them. Why flood the system with immigrants waiting to be deported after serving their entire sentence? Because of the benefit. The undeniable truth is Florida prisoners are slaves who work and do not get paid. New age slaves within the prisons system!!![sic]”
Acute and researched analyses such as the one Operation PUSH organizers put forth in their demands are not new grievances, and come from a history of prison strikes and uprisings taking place against the racist, capitalist US prison system. In September 2016, on the the 45th anniversary of the famous Attica prison uprising, prisoners across the country waged the largest prisons trike in US history, as tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals withheld their labor in several dozen prisons across the country. In the past decade we have seen prison labor/hunger strikes and uprisings taking place across several prisons, including Virginia, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, and Georgia, among others. Immigrant detentions centers, which are often just private prisons called “detention centers,” have also seen their share of riots and hunger strikes, like this one in Texas that shut don the entire facility for a week in 2015.
Of every hunger strike, labor strike, uprising, and protest waged by incarcerated individuals and detained immigrants across the country, their demands remain similar each time: they want basic human rights like sanitary and safe living conditions, fair wages for their labor, safety from the physical, mental, and sexual abuse of guards, and ways of rehabilitation/parole to re-integrate into society; things that non-incarcerated people take for granted.
There is also a stark risk for enacting such protests, which includes retaliatory violence from the state. As Sonenstein notes:
“Entire units may be punished collectively and placed on lockdown. They may be placed in solitary confinement or brutalized by guards. They may face restrictions on phone and email communication, recreation, and their participation in various programs and education opportunities. They may be transferred to other facilities and held incommunicado in the process.”
In 2010, for example, while incarcerated people in Georgia were striking against overcrowding, intolerable living conditions, and forced labor, officers withheld heating and hot water from them for several days. Incarcerated activists and organizers can face a myriad of retaliatory violence, from solitary confinement to extended sentencing. In 2016, Siddique Hasan, a prison activist sentenced to death for his participation in a 1993 prison uprising, was “written up” for merely speaking to the media about the conditions inside the prison — something that many incarcerated individuals know will result in retaliation, but do anyways in attempt to have their voices heard.
In an interview with It’s Going Down, on of the Operation PUSH organizers acknowledged this stark risk they are taking, stating the action will be “to willfully give up our privileges, like making phone calls, buying canteen, visits, and not attain to [attend] work assignments.”
- Attend and/or organize solidarity demos. There are several protests, rallies, and panels, teach-ins, and other demonstrations taking place across the country in solidarity with and support of the prisoners, including a solidarity demonstration at the Florida Capitol, and a following event featuring noted prison abolitionist Angela Davis the same evening. Events are taking place in Tallahassee, Miami, Lake Butler, and even in places like Atlanta, GA.
- Ask organizations you are part of or aware of to join the growing list of supporters that are endorsing the strike. As SPARC reports, there are currently 92 and growing.
- Use your networks, including social media, email lists, article writing, letters to editors, etc. to spread the word as much as possible. It is deeply important that the voices of these freedom fighters be amplified, as their communication with the public is deeply limited, and mainstream media does not cover or even mention their efforts despite the large size of their organizing.
- Write to a prisoner. I am constantly encouraging people to write to incarcerated people and sign up for various pen pal organizations, like the Black and Pink Org, to help them maintain their humanity while in such dehumanizing conditons — speak to them, show interest in them, remind them what the outside world is like and that their conditions are only temporary.
- Make financial donations to support strike solidarity. One of the most important ways to help Operation PUSH, as well as any anti-prison efforts, is to financially support the work they do, as well as organizations that help them. There is a crowdfunding page here where you can support them.
“I have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know any thing at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.”
— Assata Shakur