Behind the chain-link fences at five prisons across Florida, dozens of prisoners are refusing to work their jobs and/or spend money at the commissary. They're risking reprisal from prison officials, but the organizers of the strike say it's worth it to draw attention to inhumane conditions they say regularly spark deadly violence in the facilities.
“Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn,” reads a statement from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of anonymous incarcerated activists who organized the strike.
But state prison officials are pushing back hard against the organizers' claims. In fact, Michelle Glady, director of communications for the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), disputes that a strike is happening at all.
"We don’t have any institutions participating in strike activity. All operations are normal at those facilities," Glady says in a statement.
In recent years, inmate strikes have become an increasingly common tactic at Florida's notoriously troubled prisons. In January, inmates staged a strike after they were forced to work as unpaid clean-up crews in 100-plus-degree temperatures after Hurricane Irma hit Florida.
But the strikes are notoriously difficult to verify independently. Organizers say they're constantly updated on strikes by prisoners directly or from their friends and family, while some inmate activists, such as an Alabama prisoner who goes by the pseudonym "Swift Justice," use contraband cell phones to post information online and communicate with organizers.
But prison officials often deny that the strikes even exist. After Hurricane Irma, FDOC denied there was any striking — and then later charged one of the strike's organizers, Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, with inciting a riot because he announced the strike on a website. After the protest in January, FDOC spokesperson Michelle Glady told New Times anyone who promoted a "work stoppage" could be subject to disciplinary action.
That hasn't stopped the latest protests from spreading, organizers say. The Florida prisoners were spurred into action by a nationwide prison strike, according to Jailhouse Lawyers Speak.
The 11-state strike, which began August 21 and will continue through September 9, aims to call attention to what organizers say are heinous prison conditions and jobs, which prisoners get paid pennies — if anything — to work.
“The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body,” strike organizer Amani Sawari told Vox. “If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yard work, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”
In Florida, organizers say, 30 to 40 prisoners are on strike at Dade Correctional, and 40 are refusing to work in Charlotte Correctional just north of Fort Myers. Farther north, in the Panhandle, between 30 and 60 prisoners at Franklin Correctional are participating in the strike, while 70 inmates at Holmes Correctional have stopped working.
Dade Correctional Institution, just outside Miami, has faced scrutiny in recent years for mistreatment of prisoners. In 2012, guards scalded a mentally ill inmate to death as punishment for defecating in his cell.
A grievance filed by another inmate and obtained by the Miami Herald detailed Darren Rainey's last moments: "I can't take it no more, I'm sorry. I won't do it again," he screamed repeatedly after correctional officers locked him in the boiling-hot shower. No one was ever charged or fired in connection with his death.
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Nine inmates have died at Dade Correctional so far this year, according to data published by the FDOC, and 51 people have died there in the past five years.
Strike organizers have published a list of ten demands, including immediately improving prison conditions, ending prison slavery (by paying prisoners a fair wage for their work), rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act (which makes it difficult for prisoners to sue), and restoring the voting rights of ex-felons and the incarcerated.
Members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak initially planned a strike for 2019, but they decided to organize one after seven inmates died during a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April.
"Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology," Sawari wrote in a statement published online. "These men and women are demanding humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery."