Rising in the Smoke: Prison Rebellions Across the US

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This week we’ve got quite a lot to catch you up on, friends. Because there is just so much to share we’ve decided to publish Bloc Party this week in two parts. Below you’ll find a longer update on recent prison uprisings and look for the companion post that is a broader roundup of prison/er related news. Be certain to follow the IGD Instagram account where Bloc Party takes over every Friday for #FTTPFriday. We’re experimenting with ways to use that platform and there will continue to be expanded content there that you won’t find here on the site.

We’ve also been writing this column for over two years now and wanted to send the most sincere of thank you’s to every prisoner who threw down, every supporter who sent a letter or a card, every crew that dropped a banner, everyone who continues to put countless hours into making sure that those fucking cages are empty one day.

Now for all that prisons are for burning, prisoner rebellion news:

It has been a busy few months, with prison uprisings seen in Kansas, South Carolina, Arkansas and North Carolina. As those who are facing some of the harshest forms of state repression continue to find ways to push back against their conditions, it’s paramount that those of us outside who seek to destroy carceral society find ways of acting in solidarity with them.

Prison uprisings, riots, takeovers and disturbances are taking place all the time. Many of them go unseen as the prison administrators work to hide the existence of rebellion from the outside world, but with prisoners posting live feeds of unit takeovers, it becomes increasingly difficult for the State to deny. The question at hand is not whether prisoners will continue to rebel but whether or not we will work to contribute to their efforts. We need to ask ourselves what actions can be taken to broaden the scope and impact of these rebellions while also minimizing the inevitable repression that follows them? When we take these kinds of actions on the outside we can offer concrete contributions to the destabilization of the prison system, the backbone of the American plantation. Those kinds of actions are tangible solidarity with prisoners who are taking on much more significant risks.

As has been the case historically, many of the conditions that contributed to these recent rebellions were the result of overcrowding and understaffing. One corrections officer at the Norton Correctional Facility in Kansas stated, “These guys are fighting over toilets,” the officer said. “It was making for high tension from the overcrowding.”

According to a 2016 report on the nationwide crisis of understaffing at prisons, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported, “An improving economy has exacerbated the prison staffing problem in some states: job seekers can more easily find better-paying, lower-stress jobs. And the person who wants to stay in the corrections field can find better pay in county jails or federal penitentiaries.”

Overcrowding and understaffing are endemic in U.S. prisons and are also closely correlated with incidences of prison uprisings. Those interested in a long term strategy of supporting and deepening prisoner resistance may do well to track prisons in their region that are the most understaffed and most overcrowded. By identifying these bottlenecks in the prison system and intervening in them by working to establish points of contact with rebellious prisoners housed there and their families on the outside, we can position ourselves strategically to strengthen these rebellions. This directly contributes to the politicization of the rebellious inmates and can help minimize the sacrifices they will inevitably make. Through correspondence, we can work to build trust, a common language and understanding and networks of communication, all of which we can rely upon when shit goes down.

Let’s take a closer look at what has been going down on the inside as of late.

On Tuesday, September 5th, prisoners at the Norton Correctional Facility in Kansas took over portions of the prison and, according to the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents prison guards, staged a “huge riot.”

According to the Kansas City Star:

Inmates smashed windows throughout the Norton Correctional Facility. They took over staff offices and destroyed computers. They broke into the prison’s clinic and stole syringes. And some were wielding homemade weapons when correctional officers from three other prisons arrived at Norton to help restore order, according to multiple correctional officers.

Prisoners set multiple fires through out the prison in an uprising that, according to the Star, involved “400 or more inmates in the prison in northwestern Kansas that houses roughly 850.” According to the Washington Times, prisoners also “threw rocks, tried to run over a captain with a cart and were told they faced lethal force if they didn’t comply with commands.”

Another article, also by the Kansas City Star, states:

The log confirms correctional officers’ accounts about the state of disarray inside the Kansas prison: Inmates wrapped “large pieces of glass” in towels to use as weapons, they threw rocks at correctional officers, and they tried to devise a plan to charge the guards on duty.

“(Inmates) are trying to run over Capt. Crowder,” the log states. Another entry states that inmates had tipped over a medical response vehicle.

This uprising follows just a few months after another significant disruption at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas. This emerging pattern of instability within the Kansas prison system has lawmakers there scrambling to figure out how to reverse the trend. The debates have focused specifically on the new prison they are planning to build in Lansing, Kansas, in Leavenworth County just outside of Kansas City. Leavenworth County currently has seven prisons, one county jail and one youth detention facility in a county with a population of 79,000 people. Sounds like they really need another one, doesn’t it? 

As those who hold power in Kansas are working hard to figure out how to make it sustainable to lock people in cages, prisoners in Arkansas are making sure that no such sustainability is possible in their state.

Prisoners at the Varner Unit in Little Rock and at the Maximum Security Unit in Tucker, Arkansas attacked prison guards in separate attacks on Thursday, September 26th that appear to be unrelated. According to a prisoner who provided cell phone video footage of the prison’s response to Fox 16 News, “The Lieutenant was stabbed and the Major was physically beaten.”

In response, tactical units at the Varner Unit stormed the prison. According to the same prisoner:

“They came in with overwhelming force. They shot the windows out in the front and back of the barracks with riot guns. They came in and shot lots of rubber bullets,” he says. “They came in here, Mitch and they beat us, man and some of the guards are using racial expletives calling us the N-word…They just stomped and assaulted us with riot guns, they shot us with riot guns, they beat us with sticks. It was very traumatic.”

According to the Washington Post, these attacks on prison guards come in the wake of a string of rebellions by Arkansas prisoners:

The assaults follow two other disturbances at the Maximum Security Unit — also known as Tucker Max — in recent months. In August, several inmates held three guards hostage after snatching their keys and a Taser and a month before that, a guard fired warning shots into the air after two guards and an inmate were attacked there. Other incidents elsewhere include a disturbance where inmates broke windows and damaged windows at the Cummins Unit and the fatal assault of an inmate at another facility this summer.

The Washington Post goes on to point out that these disturbances come in the midst of severe understaffing in the Arkansas prison system:

Varner is one of four prisons where lawmakers last month approved raising hazard pay, a move that correction officials said was needed to fill vacancies. Nearly a third of the 305 authorized security positions at Varner were vacant as of Thursday, according to the Department of Correction, while roughly a fifth of the 203 security position at the Tucker Max unit were vacant.

Despite the best efforts of the State of Arkansas to address these problems by throwing more money at their disaster of a prison system, the prisoners of Arkansas are likely to maintain their pattern of rebellion. Though will any of us be there to support them?

Meanwhile, just a week later in South Carolina, prisoners at the McCormick Correctional Institution took control of a large unit of the prison on Wednesday, October 4th and set fires, chased officers with knives, and climbed on the roof. They were able to hold their unit for three hours until their captors were able to regain control.

This uprising followed just a week after an alleged brawl between prisoners led to a significant disruption of the prison which, according to the mother of one inmate, speaking to the blog FitNews, was worse than the disturbance on Wednesday and contained some unfortunate inmate-on-inmate violence.

According to the group Millions for Prisoners and prisoners able to access Twitter from contraband cell phones within the prison, the rebellion on October 4th was a response to the conditions within the prison, most notably the strict rationing of water that supplied prisoners with only 8oz of water per day. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak wrote

We are being punished for demanding water.

The unit I am in is currently still locked down. The rest of the general population has resumed normal routines. Our lockdown status is because we refused to return to our cells after they denied us water Friday. My current unit is F4. We will not be allowed visits, rec, or showers due to our demand for water. Throughout the water crisis we were only given one cup of water a day. A cup of milk for brunch. But no water. Some of us thought we were going to die of thirst. Others went on to drink the contaminated water. Yes, for every meal, pigs were there with big weapons ready to engage us if we demanded water.

According to one prisoner, a correctional officer also walked off the job in the midst of the rebellion after refusing to fire live ammunition at rebelling prisoners.

Occasionally stories such as this make their way out of prisoner uprisings, refusals of guards to cooperate with orders to inflict horrific levels of harm on those they hold captive. If this story is true, it offers a glimpse into what it might look like to crumble these institutions from all sides. We know the role of guards is to deny their basic humanity and do harm to others. Perhaps there are opportunities to stoke these conflicts because if people begin to refuse that role, the prison walls don’t stand a chance.

A prisoner in another wing of the prison shot this video, narrating the events in the prison as he understood them and describing the horrific conditions of confinement at McCormick Correctional:

Millions for Prisoners tweeted an update, warning of the potential for mass retaliatory transfers in the wake of the rebellion. Such transfers are standard operating procedure for prisons following rebellions, and have the intended impact of breaking the unity of the rebellious prisoners. But in the past, as during the rebellions at Kinross Correctional Institution in March and April of 2016, these transfers have had the unintended impact of spreading the rebellion to other institutions.

South Carolina, we’ve got our eye on y’all and will be looking to see what develops.

And just this week at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution in North Carolina, prisoners set fires within the prison and several inmates tried to escape. As of now, the details of this disturbance are still a little foggy, but it would appear that two prison employees are confirmed dead and many others have been hospitalized.

We’ll continue covering prison uprisings both here and on the IGD Instagram for #FTTPFriday. Be sure to check out the additional Bloc Party post today for all the other prison/er updates from the bloc.


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About the author:
Bloc Party

Bloc Party is an ongoing column that looks at State repression, counter-insurgency, prisons, political prisoners, as well as what people are doing to resist them.