About 300 protesters gathered outside San Quentin State Prison’s west entrance on Saturday to show solidarity with striking inmates nationwide. The national prison strike, which may be the largest of its kind in U.S. history, is now entering its second week. The strikers seek reforms in sentencing and the treatment of inmates in state, federal, and immigration detention facilities.
Inmates in 17 states are involved in the strike, including in California’s Folsom State Prison, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the organizations leading the strike. Rallies supporting the strikers have occurred in 21 cities as far-flung as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Leipzig, Germany, the IWOC said in a statement.
Inside prisons and jails, strikers are boycotting commissaries, refusing to work, and, in some cases, refusing to eat until their demands are met.
At Saturday’s rally outside San Quentin, speakers described the inhumanity of the prison system and outlined the strikers’ 10-point platform.
Speakers at the San Quentin rally included Stephen Bingham, George Jackson’s lawyer, and Jose Villarreal, who organized three hunger strikes while incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison in opposition to the use of solitary confinement, which he describes as “torture.”
Strike strategies of the IWOC include “phone zaps,” whereby many supporters make simultaneous calls to the government officials who oversee California’s prisons and jails with the goal of overwhelming them with a single message. San Quentin State Prison shut down its phone lines on Saturday afternoon in response to one such phone zap, according to Bilal Ali, a former Black Panther who is supporting the strikers.
While the IWOC claims that California prisoners are participating in the national strike, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not acknowledged any organized political resistance inside its facilities.
“There have been no reported incidents or indications that any California state prison inmates have participated in the national prison strike,” Vicky Waters, a CDCR spokesperson, wrote in an email. “San Quentin State Prison ran normal operations this weekend, and I am not aware of any issues with the phone lines.”
Nube Brown of the Prisoners’ Human Rights Coalition said she is concerned that sensationalistic news coverage of the strike could cause its key messages to be lost. Brown said a lot of the news coverage has fixated on claims of prison “slavery” but that many of the strikers are motivated by other issues. Some are seeking the reinstatement of the Pell Grant program, a federal education grant that used to be offered to incarcerated people, but was cut. Many prisoners also want to overturn the system of disenfranchisement and win the right to vote in state and federal elections.
The strike, which began on Aug. 21, the anniversary of Black Panther George Jackson’s death in San Quentin in 1971, will run through Sept. 9, the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising.
Local chapters of the IWOC and the Prisoners’ Human Rights Coalition have planned further actions in the Bay Area, including rallies, workshops, and phone zaps.