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Oct 3, 16

Why Prisons Strikes are Necessary: An Ex-Prisoner’s Experience

Submitted to It’s Going Down
By Phillip A. Ruiz

At the beginning of 2005 in Corcoran, California, I started my ten year prison sentence for a non-violent drug offence. A year and a half later, I was placed in the SHU, (Security Housing Unit or also known as solitary confinement), for the remainder of my prison sentence for my participation in numerous direct actions inside prisons such as, work stoppages, walk-outs, wildcat strikes, slow downs, hunger strikes, alleged acts of sabotage, and some not so well known tactics that are exclusive to prisons. My defiant and rebellious behavior according to the prison authorities deemed me, “a threat to the safety and security of the institution.” I was frequently labeled as an organizer and leader during such strikes. At the same time, I was labeled a “Program Failure” and was given an indeterminate SHU program because of this. Hello long term isolation, goodbye phone calls to family and friends, good bye to physical visits with family, meaningful human interaction, daily sunlight and fresh air, good bye to daily showers, and any sort of rehabilitation or education programs.

Long term isolation is a very real risk prisoners take when they challenge the forced prison slave labor system that exists inside American prisons. It was a risk I consciously took and it is a risk many, many, prisoners are currently taking during the present prisoner strike that began on September 9, 2016.

At the beginning of my prison sentence I was given a much desired job of working in the institutions lunch room. I was given $16.00 a month for this, which was a hot job considering most prisoners come from poor socio-economic backgrounds like myself. Our hours were 6:00 am to 3:30 pm. No break and no lunch time. We were told our break and lunch was when we got off at 3:30. What I did was prepare the sack lunches for the entire prisons prisoner population, which was at the time like around 1,600 prisoners. What was inside these sack lunches was an apple, a elementary school size milk or juice carton, two cookies or graham crackers, a small bag of pretzels, four pieces of bread and either two slices of “lunch meat” or a small pack of peanut butter and jelly.

This lunch room was set up in a sweat-shop type environment. There was a huge table/conveyor belt in the center of the warehouse/lunchroom and prisoners standing side by side on each side of this contraption. Brown paper lunch bags were placed on conveyor belt and each prisoner had the task of placing a specific lunch item inside a brown lunch bag. But in reality it was more like throwing the item inside the brown bag, like a game of basketball, since the lunch bags moved so fast down the line; and don’t you dare be the one to miss an item in a bag. If you didn’t keep up to the speed and rhythm of the conveyor belt, you would be the cause of shutting it down, stopping the flow of lunches, keeping everyone overtime, and eventually could be fired if you did it again.

Forced prisoner slave labor, I’m often asked why i call it  this term. I call it what it really is. So, if a prisoner refuses to work in these sweatshop conditions or wanted to challenge specific conditions they couldn’t go to their union and organize around the issue. Prisoner unions did not exist at the time. Thankfully, prisoner unions are becoming a tangible possibility and reality now, thanks to the I.W.W. and its standing committee, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

Consequently, when and if a prisoner refuses to work ANY job inside a California prison they are quickly fired and given extra time onto their prison sentence and commissary , phone calls, and visitation “privileges” are revoked. That is why it is forced slave labor. If you don’t work how, when, and where the prison authorities demand you to, then you don’t get released from prison.

So back in the Corcoran lunch room, being that we had no breaks or lunch time we incarcerated workers at the time had the habit of munching on some of the snacks that were placed in the sack lunches throughout the day. We didn’t take away from the sack lunches we just found a method to take snacks before we started making the lunches so that we would have something to eat throughout our shift. Most guards wouldn’t trip on this although officially it wasn’t allowed. Then one day an asshole guard, who never worked in the lunchroom, came on duty…and all hell broke loose. This fascist guard who would’ve been a poster-child for the gulags in a different time told us snaking on snacks during work hours would result in us being immediately fired. Fucking really.

You deny us a break, lunch, and force us to work in sweatshop conditions then you won’t allow us to get our munch on with some cookies (that prisoners in another prison baked). Oh, hell no. All of us looked at each other in defiant disgust and started whispering, fuck this shit. I loudly said, “Fuck this,” I quit. Each prisoner looked at me in half amazement and bewilderment. So I keep on going on a rant loud enough so every prisoner could here me. How they are exploiting us, we are prisoner slaves, that we have no voice but that we could have one through our action, that this is bullshit, we need to rise up, take action and show these pigs we ain’t gonna put up with this shit anymore.

Keep in mind, most prisoners are not activists nor socially conscious or up on union organizing. At the same time, the prisoner mentality is often broken to the point where one accepts the prison status quo and wrongly believes things can’t get any better. This is a result of years of the prison system gaining illusory power and authority over the poor, working poor, people of color, and all minorities. Hence the school to prison pipeline. Subsequently, lots of prisoners just go with the flow. At least that’s how it was when I was in prison. Prisoners are now realizing that by with-holding their labor they have the power to shut down prisons and get the authorities, at the very least, to reevaluate the prison slave labor system. In essence, they are realizing that striking is a necessary stepping stone in changing the prison system and the dynamics of prison slave labor.

Surprisingly, most of the lunchroom decided to quit too, which had a domino effect because soon people from all over the central kitchen started hearing about what was going down in the lunch room and started saying “fuck that” while bringing up their own beefs. Soon after our walk out we had cooks, dishwashers, maintenance, and clerks walk out on their job. The prison was put on emergency lockdown and we had to purchase food from an outside source because the majority of the central kitchen, which cooked and prepared the food for the entire prison, walked out in a type of wildcat/work stoppage.

Some criticize the effectiveness of prisoner strikes. Although this first hand experience didn’t change the forced prisoner slave labor practices, it did shut the prison down to the point where there was a major structural overhaul in the form of giving prisoners not only a break but a lunch break as well. But most importantly in my opinion, is that this spur of the moment walk out empowered prisoners, who were beaten down most of their lives and use to being hyper exploited and used  to being slaves, gave them a new sense of belief and fresh breath of life what is possible; of what change is possible through their action. Changing the prisoner mentality and breaking the state sponsored racial and gang segregation that exists in prisons is priceless and that happened through striking prisoners.  

That is why supporting the current strike is so important and necessary.

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