Michael Slate Interview with Heather Ann Thompson on Nationwide Prison Strike

“How we treat people in our prisons is a reflection of how our society functions”

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The following are excerpts from an August 27, 2018 Michael Slate interview with historian and author Heather Ann Thompson.


Michael Slate: Prisoners across the country have launched a nationwide strike to demand improved living conditions, greater access to resources, and the end of modern day slavery. Prisoners in at least 17 states are expected to participate in coordinated sit-ins, hunger strikes, work stoppages, and commissary boycotts from August 21 until September 9, the 47th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. Joining us to talk about this nationwide prisoners strike is Heather Ann Thompson, author of the book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather Ann Thompson: Great to be here.

Michael Slate: There have been comparisons between what’s going on now and with the Attica rebellion in 1971, and the prisoners themselves have pointed this out.

Heather Ann Thompson: I think it’s incredibly important to remember that we’ve been at this task of making prisoner conditions more humane for nearly five decades, since Attica. Because it’s mostly lip service, because we have not yet really done much to improve conditions on the inside, in fact, arguably, they’ve gotten worse and worse as the recent riot at the facility in South Carolina showed. Attica reminds us of the power of folks standing together and bringing the world’s attention to what life can really be behind bars.

Michael Slate: The prisoners have also called for a boycott of agencies and companies that benefit from prisoner labor. They’ve put it out to people outside of prison that there’s actually a role that people need to play in relation to all these other forces that are basically, in one way or another, engendering all this.

Heather Ann Thompson: Right. To me, one of the most powerful things of the message in this particular strike is that exact point that folks on the outside have a real responsibility to get involved and can get involved, both by simply calling attention to this but also by boycotting goods if you know that they’re being made in such an exploitative fashion. In other words, prisoners aren’t getting paid any money to make them nor are workers on the outside. The only folks making money are the actual state institutions or the private companies using the labor. To the extent that we know who those companies are, that’s certainly a role people can play. But also simply calling attention to the fact that these are overwhelmingly public institutions that we pay for, that we ostensibly support as making our society safer and yet we don’t have a clue what goes on inside and what folks tell us is going on is pretty horrific with the overcrowding, terrible nutrition, lack of basic medical care, privatized sources in the prison so that the folks inside literally cannot afford to talk to their children. We’re in a real crisis point so folks on the outside can shine the light on that.

Michael Slate: It’s really significant that the dates the strike is stretching over are in relationship to historically significant events—the murder of George Jackson to the Attica Rebellion. The prisoners themselves are calling attention to this.

Heather Ann Thompson: Despite the fact that so many prisons have banned my book from the inside, there have been a lot of folks who have managed to get it and read it, and there’s been already, long before the book, a deep, collective knowledge of the importance of Attica in terms of nearly 1,300 men standing together, across racial lines and political divisions to demand basic human rights. Folks know about that, it’s an important marker. And I think this was an additionally important move to begin the prison strike on the anniversary of the death of George Jackson, because that was a surprise, I think, to some. Why would you begin a rebellion on a day that commemorates the death of someone as important to prisoner rights activism as George Jackson? But notably, that’s what motivated the Attica brothers so many years ago. It was when they heard that George Jackson had been gunned down at San Quentin that they went to the mess hall that morning in utter silence—this was a few weeks before the actual uprising, but it signaled, you know, look, things have gotten so bad that now when you’re sentenced to prison, you might end up dead inside....

Michael Slate: It really seems that there’s a link between what’s happening with mass incarceration and society overall in terms of the severity of the all-out assault on prisoners now in terms of rights or lack of them and what I think is a growing genocidal assault on Black and Brown people throughout society in general.

Heather Ann Thompson: I don’t think it’s accidental that the reason why this issue is so fundamentally in our face again is not because politicians woke up one day and said, “Oh my God, this is a problem. Let’s start talking about it.” It’s because it has reached such crisis proportions on the ground—the policing of citizens in their community that then translates into the prosecution that then translates into mass incarceration. That has become so acute with so many people on the inside experiencing these terrible conditions and so many people being disproportionately policed on the outside and treated badly, that there have been eruptions and it hasn’t just been in prisons, it has been in places like Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago. This kind of pressure from below is reminiscent of the ’60s in the same way that this issue of wage slavery is reminiscent of the Civil War—this is reminiscent of the activism of the ’60s when politicians had to respond, not because it was timely on their part but because people were erupting on a regular basis from below.

Michael Slate: One of the things that you talk about is the South Carolina prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution (in April 2018) where seven prisoners were killed, more were severely injured—and the prison blames it on gang rivalries. It’s important to explore this because it’s related to what’s happening in prisons overall.

Heather Ann Thompson: Let’s remember that any time a prison makes the news because the prisoners have “rioted,” we should always immediately stop and doubt literally any interpretation that is coming to us from the Department of Corrections, no matter what the state. I don’t say that as a conspiracy theorist—I say it as a historian and a scholar and someone who has spent a great deal of time in these institutions. Departments of Corrections always—then, now, and in perpetuity—explain chaos in the prison as the product of “troublemakers” and militants or gang members. Always there is a more complicated story.

When I heard news that the Lee Correctional Facility had exploded and that all of these prisoners had died, I immediately tried to reach inside to talk to some of the folks. And, of course, that story was not what the state officials were telling us. It was not just gang fights—it was about the state having completely neglected this institution, having far too few trained guards inside; it was chaos. The administration put rival groups of people in the same tier—and a tier that was so shabbily constructed that the doors didn’t even lock—and then pretty much just left everybody alone. In that chaos, people were hurt—but what we never heard was that in that chaos other prisoners were trying desperately to help, were trying to call for medical care, and that they [the prison authorities] left that institution for hours and hours and hours, nearly seven hours, and didn’t do anything. I’ve seen film from inside; these guys were filming some of the terrible things going on inside in terms of the victims, and at any point someone could have come in to help but they didn’t. Again, Lee was a cry for help. These are always cries for help, and the Department of Corrections always portrays them as the worst of the worst in there committing violence for no reason.

Michael Slate: The South Carolina newspapers talk about how the number of prisoners killed in state prisons there has more than doubled in 2017 from 2016 and quadrupled from two years ago. This is a pretty heavy indictment.

Heather Ann Thompson: This is why the call for this strike on the anniversary of George Jackson’s death is so meaningful—because it really does underscore this point that to be locked up and to serve time now means risking death. These prisons are so severely overcrowded. In some prisons there is an absolute sense that guards put rival groups of prisoners together simply for sport, to take bets on gladiator-type situations, on the violence. This is a sick system, and these are people’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, who are subjected to this. This is nothing to do with rehabilitation. There is no possibility for making folks happy or healthy or society safer or better; this is about warehousing. And it’s about warehousing very specific groups of people; people with the least power in society on the outside to avoid the policing that has led them to incarceration in the first place.

Michael Slate: Let’s talk about the 13th Amendment1 to the U.S. Constitution and why that’s an issue in relation to prison today. If you’re convicted they’re actually allowed to institute what amounts to slavery.

Heather Ann Thompson: Yeah, and there are complicated reasons as to how that ever ended up in the U.S. Constitution, but the shorthand thing that folks need to understand is that this was extremely instrumental after the Civil War in effectively re-enslaving so many folks that had been newly emancipated. It is the mechanism by which much of the South was rebuilt on this now-incarcerated labor force—not an officially slave labor force but through criminal justice laws able to re-enslave an entire population of newly freed people.

One way to think about this is that on the eve of the Civil War most penitentiaries were mostly white. Twenty years after the Civil War penitentiaries in the South were overwhelmingly Black. That’s not because whites had stopped committing crimes and Blacks just lost their minds with freedom; it’s because the laws changed in such a way to particularly criminalize Brown folks and Black folks and then put them to labor in a convict leasing situation. This is pretty much what happened in the 1960s, after that kind of freedom moment you have laws changing and within a decade sky rocketing rates of overwhelmingly Black and Brown incarceration that is then subsequently put to work. And, by the way, disenfranchised, which is what happened the first time, too. It’s important that we call attention to the 13th Amendment because it has a deep history that’s very unsavory.

Michael Slate: More than 200 immigrants currently detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, have joined the strike, and Palestinian prisoners, who are imprisoned in Palestine, sent a statement of support. This actually speaks to a certain universality and a hatred for what’s being done here.

Heather Ann Thompson: Also, prisoners in Canada. I feel like the United States is such an international outlier on the one hand because its prison population is so bloated compared to any other country and its racial disproportionally is so startling, so staggering. But on the other hand, there is a recognition among other groups of people across the world that have been excessively policed and excessively marginalized and locked up in excessively brutal institutions that what is happening to Americans on the inside is what is happening to them. There is a great deal of solidarity that is quite moving.

Michael Slate: The prisoners said, “Prisoners understand that they’re being treated as animals. Prisons in America are a warzone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us, it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?” That is very powerful.

Heather Ann Thompson: Yes, and that kind of gets at the heart of what I was mentioning before that for folks on the outside who have never been inside of an institution or have very little personal connection with one, there is this feeling that something good might happen there or could happen there or that even if nothing good can come out of it, at least people are being punished within the limits of the law. What they don’t understand is that we have, for example, so many children in this country serving life sentences. We have people serving an amount of solitary confinement that is beyond anything that any medical professional in any moment in history would deem humane.

All of this goes on with very, very little transparency. So when you hear from someone on the inside saying, “We feel like we’re almost dead so we have nothing to lose,” what does that mean? Well, what that means is these are people who’ve been in 6 x 8 cells, sometimes for decades, with very little human touch, very little human interaction, people who’ve been incarcerated so far away from their families that they’ve lost touch with the very people who might yet tether them back to society. That is not hyperbole. What you heard that person say is not hyperbole, it is the reality. These are places where people go to die, either literally or figuratively.

Michael Slate: People face very serious consequences for asserting their humanity and for standing up and doing that. And there’s an importance of Attica being put out by the prisoners themselves in relation to this uprising.

Heather Ann Thompson: Attica has two legacies, and it’s important to realize the power of both of them. One of the legacies is the one that you just mentioned, which is that no matter how repressive an institution wants to be, no matter how much it shuts down the doors, no matter how many years it gives for sentences, no matter how many days and hours and weeks and decades you can give someone solitary, at the end of the day human beings will ultimately stand together to be treated as human. That is one of Attica’s most profound legacies, which is why it is always harkened back to in moments like this.

The other legacy, though, of Attica, is very, very disturbing, which is when people do that, when people do stand up and demand to be treated as human the repression can be stunning, staggering... We need to keep our eyes out because the legacy of Attica shows us that the most dangerous time for prisoners—men, women, children, anyone on the inside who stands up—the most dangerous time is when it’s over. It’s when the media goes home; it’s when no one’s talking about it anymore. At Attica that led to months of just horrific, horrific torture that state officials then denied had even happened for the next 45 years. We’ve got to pay attention next week as much as we’re paying attention this week....

The bottom line, why people on the outside should care is that, who is inside is us. They are children, they are parents, they are our neighbors, they are fellow Americans or they are new Americans, even perhaps people who have just arrived on our shores, but they are all us. How we treat people in our prisons is a reflection of how our society functions. We want our prisons to be humane and just. The only way that is going to happen is if we shine a light on them, and the only way we’re going to shine a light on them is when we’re forced to. These kinds of moments give us a wake-up call to pay attention to what’s going on inside, and to understand that if it is our children in there or someone else’s children in there, the standards should be the same. What must go on must be humane and it must be truly just not just a shimmer of justice.

Michael Slate: Heather, thank you very much for joining us today.

Heather Ann Thompson: Thank you so much for having me in to give some attention to this issue.

1. The 13th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, outlawed slavery and gave Black people formal equality before the law. Before that amendment, the official law of the U.S. was that Black people had no rights that any white person was bound to respect (!). But the 13th Amendment did not grant them the vote or other social and political rights. And it permitted “involuntary servitude” of prisoners.  [back]


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