San Quentin Protest Planned to Support National Prison Strike

A weeks-long prison strike is taking hold nationwide in a growing call for reforms.

(Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A protest is planned outside San Quentin State Prison on Saturday to support the nationwide prison strike.

A weeks-long prison strike began on Tuesday in 17 states nationwide to draw attention to conditions in prisons and demand reform. The strike is a direct response to a violent prison riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution in April, when seven people died and at least 17 were seriously hurt, the Associated Press reported.

The last prison strike took place in 2016 and involved 12 states, then marking the largest prison strike the country’s history. It’s self-organized by people incarcerated who are refusing to work for pennies, boycotting commissary purchases for basic supplies, and going on hunger strikes — protests that may not be seen by society outside the prison walls. 

In solidarity with the strike taking hold, about 80 people on buses and an unknown amount of people driving on their own are set to protest in San Quentin on Saturday beginning with a rally at West Oakland BART station at 11 a.m.

“It lets folks inside know that us on the outside have their backs,” says Will Adams, a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee Oakland chapter. “All of [the demands] are just a general bid for humanity in the face of an institution whose primary purpose is to dehumanize people.”

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak — a group of prisoners providing mutual legal help — put together a list of 10 demands, which includes ending prison slavery, harsher sentencing and parole grants to people of color, and the restriction of voting rights. Local groups like the Idriss Stelly Foundation, Young Women’s Freedom Center, and the San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America.

Cole Dorsey, an IWOC member who was incarcerated from 2004 to 2007 at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Michigan, says prisoners taking action isn’t anything new. One Christmas, guards wouldn’t send out the cards they saved up to buy, prompting a labor strike. He says guards also pitted them against one another by race, religion and other differences.

“The same conditions I experienced are the exact same,” Dorsey says. “They try to break your will to fight or to even stand up to the arbitrary administrative rules.”

The California Legislature tackled criminal justice reform in a big way this week. A bill to end cash bail for suspect awaiting trial — and instead assess their risks on an individual level — heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk and would make California the first in the nation to do so.

This summer, San Francisco passed legislation to eliminate local administrative fees that saddle people leaving the criminal justice system with thousands of dollars in debt they are unable to pay off. Mayor London Breed announced on Thursday that it has freed 21,000 people from a collective $32 million

But the new laws wouldn’t change conditions for people inside the prison walls. One thing is clear: the longer it goes unaddressed and preventable tragedies occur, the country may have even bigger prison strikes on their hands in the future.

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