Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence report back

Recently paroled MOVE 9 political prisoners Debbie and Michael Africa, and their son Michael Africa Jr., delivering the keynote talk to a full auditorium of the 2019 Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence in Gainesville, Florida. Mike Jr. was born in a prison cell, where Debbie was able to hide him for his first week. – Photo: Jordan Mazurek

by Angela Roberts & Eric Palba

Three members of the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee-Oakland were able to attend this year’s Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP) Convergence in Gainesville, Florida, last month, and we wanted to share the highlights. The sessions detailed below are just a few of the many radical panels, call ins and conversations that made the weekend empowering and edifying.

Fight Toxic Prisons, a collaboration with the Abolitionist Law Center, is a national group focused on grassroots organizing at the intersection of prisons and the environment. FTP has also hosted convergences in Washington, D.C., Denton/Fort Worth and Pittsburgh.

FTP and IWOC have collaborated on several phone campaigns to support prisoners impacted by environmental contamination and disaster in states such as Michigan and South Carolina. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) is an autonomous subcommittee of the IWW that functions as an outside solidarity network for prisoners who choose to resist and organize against their conditions with support from abolitionists on the outside.

Friday, June 14th

We met with members of the IWOC network to hear first hand reports of IWOC actions and campaigns from coast to coast. We got to hear about campaigns to close the Dekalb County Jail in Atlanta and the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility in Wisconsin. In Florida, an ongoing campaign is pressuring state officials to divest from prison labor, its targets the local university and the state Department of Transportation, which continues to utilize forced labor. FDOT said it has used about $67 million of inmate labor since July 2015 alone.

A historic discussion via phone calls from several prisons around the country to a packed house in Florida was held among political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, KC Canada and Kwame Shakur. Newly freed New Afrikan Black Panther Party Chairman Shaka Zulu, who was able to attend the 2019 Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence, joined in. – Photo: Jordan Mazurek

In New York, anti-repression organizers are fighting to support the Bronx 120, youth who were arrested on dubious conspiracy charges in one of the largest NYPD raids in history. The meeting focused on building collective capacity to support each other on the outside, as well as a plan to revamp the IWOC national newsletter. The national Incarcerated Worker newsletter will feature multiple newsletter projects that other local groups are holding down including California’s “Keep the Fires Burning.”

IWOC Oakland members and volunteers go out weekly to Santa Rita Jail to offer hot food, cigarettes, free clothing and rides to public transportation. The two organizers who have been coordinating and building this effort spoke about the process of organizing a volunteer group and the need for a coalition to fight the torture and abuse inflicted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

The talk focused on making the practice replicable in other cities and towns. It emphasized the fact that care for one another is an essential part of our work: that supporting and helping to meet each other’s bodily needs is critical to maintaining the community ties that a jail or prison seeks to break. The presentation also encouraged people to cultivate an understanding of the cages in their own neighborhoods as sites of counterinsurgency, where state and federal funding for police and sheriffs’ departments has produced a state of warfare against civilians.

At the culmination of the 2019 FTP Convergence, attendees blocked entrance to the Florida Department of Transportation, which has a $19 million contract with the Florida Department of Corrections to lease out prisoners as unpaid slaves to do road work for the state. The aim was to draw connections between money bail and slavery. – Photo: Jordan Mazurek

Saturday, June 15th

Prison abolitionist are very frequently met with the important question: “In a world without prisons, what will we do to address cases of abuse and violence and keep people safe?” The FTP convergence addressed this head-on, early on Saturday morning. A panel discussion on domestic violence was led by a comrade from London, and a law professor who has written a book called “Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence.”

Leigh self identified as “probably the most small-c conservative here” and has been doing domestic violence work for 25 years, originally coming at it from a pretty mainstream, pro incarceration perspective. She shifted to favor decriminalizing after seeing – in her own work and in the research – that criminalization has failed as a strategy for ending intimate partner violence, and she acknowledged that this is what women of color said would happen from the beginning.

A protester holds a sign highlighting the Juneteenth and Father’s Day Bailout organized by the Gainesville Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee that ended the 2019 Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence. Three people were successfully bailed out of the Alachua County Jail. – Photo: Jordan Mazurek

Key take-aways were 1) that prevention is a much more effective use of resources than reaction; 2) that the Violence Against Women Act, which is up for renewal, while aimed at safety, is full of the same punitive and carceral thinking that Leigh’s research shows has failed; and 3) Leigh challenged the narrative about domestic violence as being about “power and control” in favor of a more holistically trauma informed understanding.

“The presentation encouraged people to cultivate an understanding of the cages in their own neighborhoods as sites of counterinsurgency.”

In a break-out session, people discussed their own identities and positions of privilege and how those may create certain dynamics within the work. White folks with middle class and/or academic backgrounds were encouraged to be intentional and reflective about how they navigate movement spaces, and to situate themselves in their motivations and meet feedback head-on, especially when it comes to one’s blind spots and privileges.

Over dinner, we listened to a call-in panel with several currently caged political prisoners: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Rashid Johnson, KC Canada, Kwame Shakur and recently freed political prisoner Shaka Zulu joining us in person. The panel spoke on their conditions and shared their analysis of the carceral system’s strategy.

Notable points: Prisons are both an economic project and a counterinsurgency program. Their neverending goal is to continue “locking people up who are trying to be free.” And a reoccurring theme and recognition of the discussion was that “we can’t destroy prisons without destroying capitalism.”

Sunday, June 16th

The morning began with Chairman Shaka Zulu speaking about “hitting the ground like a paratrooper” upon release to fight jail construction in New Jersey. He is the current chairman and cofounder with Rashid Johnson of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party.

Rashid, in the room again via phone, shared what he considers some victories: Working with Florida organizations to found SPARC (Supporting Prisoners and Real Change). Bringing together families of prisoners to fight video visitation and high fees for use of communications technology.

A strike at Red Onion State Prison (Virginia supermax) produced a report on abuses within the prison with the help of outside organizations. This report, in combination with organizing by prisoners and SPARC, pressured the institution to end the practice of 22 hour a day solitary confinement.

Rashid also favored the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper with a hearty shoutout. Finally, Rashid shares what he thinks is needed as we move into the future: 1) Effective inside-outside reporting structure to facilitate the sharing of information. 2) Need to collaborate, consolidate groups and movements and build alliances. 3) Need to turn prisons into sites of “base-building” and political education.

Organizers who live and/or work directly with people incarcerated in Southern states shared their work and strategic trajectory:

In Atlanta IWOC and several other community organizations and individuals are mobilizing against Dekalb and Fulton County jails, where people caged have been experiencing severe medical neglect, moldy food and cells, and several deaths. Dekalb uses video visitation, which is how the initial call for help reached IWOC and other groups in Atlanta.

Reports also detailed people disappearing. An April 15 noise demo was spontaneously organized, and groups began tabling outside Dekalb during visiting hours. People who put out the call for help were placed in solitary. During noise demos, people inside the jail broke windows, shouted, and attempted to get information and evidence out including mold samples. Another solidarity demonstration was held on July 1.

In Louisiana, acts of resistance are ongoing in Angola, but repression has been fierce. One prisoner was made an example by being dragged by ankle chains in preemptive retaliation for possible strike activity. Organizers are using surveys to gather information on family contacts, sentencing.

This information is crucial in changing the public’s story of imprisoned people and exposing gross inconsistencies and injustices on the part of the state. Many people in Louisiana who are serving long or life sentences were convicted by a jury of 10 rather than 12, and over 7,000 people have remained caged well after their parole dates. Angola has a hospice care wing and a cemetery.

In Alabama, hunger strikes continue in 2019. Holman and St. Clair Correctional Facility were both raided by SWAT teams, and 30 people were transferred to isolation in Holman. Demands of the hunger strike: release from solitary and give an explanation for the transfer.

Kinetik Justice of the Free Alabama Movement was placed in solitary and went on hunger strike. Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle and FTP organized a series of phone zaps. This action inspired other people to organize a hunger strike.

Alabama DOC used the local media to spread misinformation by falsely reporting that people were eating and that the strike had ended. Kenneth Traywick also went on hunger strike to protest transfer from medium security to maximum at Limestone Correctional Facility.

Kinetik Justice, Swift Justice and Kenneth Traywick are all working to expose abuses at Limestone. Family members are being extorted for money in exchange for contact with loved ones inside. Successes: The “bucket detail” (dry cell isolation for several days) practice ended due to public pressure and media coverage. ADOC is under investigation by the Department of Justice, meaning that a lawsuit or takeover of the system may occur.

The demands of the most recent hunger strike:                     

  • No new prisons
  • Removal of the corrupt administration at Limestone
  • End retaliation against inside organizers
  • Institute rehabilitation programing
  • Ending the abusive use of solitary confinement

An FTP organizer, in concert with Kinetik Justice and Swift Justice, mobilized people from the convergence to meet Alabama organizers, loved ones and Unheard Voices of the Concrete Jungle for a rally on June 22 outside of Limestone Correctional Facility in Northern Alabama. This is where Swift and Kinetic are currently being held and where many inside organizers in Alabama have been sent in recent years to face torturous repression and violence.

Though the size of the grounds did not allow for noise to travel in, we have received word that the guys inside were ecstatic to see coverage of the rally on the local news. As a direct result of this action, demand number 2, “the removal of the corrupt administration at Limestone,” has been met in part!

Monday, June 17th

On Monday, June 17, convergence participants took part in two protest actions. One was against the Florida Department of Transportation, which continues to use prison slavery on roads and highways despite Alachua County voting to end the inmate leasing practice. The other action was a rally outside the county jail to both hold space at the jail itself and call attention to a Father’s Day Bail Out campaign that is ongoing.

After a full weekend of panels, trainings and movement building, attendees pose for a group photo at the 2019 Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence in Gainesville, Florida. – Photo: Jordan Mazurek

One dad was bailed that day and FTP and IWOC Gainesville continue raising funds to get more dads out of jail. The most powerful moment of the day was when one of the organizers read out the names of every single person inside Alachua County Jail – a really important moment of solidarity which took a lot of physical endurance, a moment where rising power was felt.

These are just the take-aways that stood out to us. If you’d like further information or to get in touch, please write to IWOC Oakland at P.O. Box 6305, Oakland, CA 94603 OR Fight Toxic Prisons at 433 South Main St., Gainesville, FL 32601.