By Jared Olson. Photos by Adriana Cabezas
Just past 9:30 a.m. last Sunday, September 9th, protesters gathered in the sweltering late summer heat before the Hamilton Correctional Institute Annex—a remote prison complex in the pine woods near Jasper, Florida, seven-and-a-half miles south of the Georgia border.
Armed with signs and megaphones, roughly 15 activists gathered in the tangled grass roadside facing the jails north entrance that morning to express solidarity with inmates inside, who were then on the final lap of a 20-day, nationally coordinated strike. The strike—organized to protest deteriorating jail conditions and calling for an end to “prison slavery”—was one of the longest, largest acts of civil disobedience by prisoners in US history, and involved inmates incarcerated in 19 states.
“It’s important to let the people on the inside know that they have support on the outside,” said Karen Smith, a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) gathered at one of two entry points to the prison that morning. “If we’re not out here, then the movement inside dies.”
“We’ve never been to Hamilton before, so this is new territory for us” Rebecca Greene of the IWOC’s decision to express solidarity with prisoners at this sight on Sunday.
Rebecca Greene is an alias—she asked that her real name not be used so as to avoid risking loss of visitation with her unspecified loved ones within the prison.
“FDOC (Florida Department of Corrections) censors our ability to talk to people (inside),” she said.
A statement issued in April of 2018 by Jailhouse Lawyers Speaks—a human rights group organized by prisoners to fight for incarcerated people’s rights—delineated ten demands to be fulfilled in response to their prolonged act of civil disobedience. Through work strikes, hunger strikes, and sit-ins, prisoners were demanding “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” amongst other things, as well as “an immediate end to prison slavery.” They moreover urged that “the voting rights of all (prisoners) and so-called ‘ex-felons’ must be counted. Representation is demanded.”
“I believe the prison system that we currently have operates based on punishment,” said Melissa Thorpe, an activist who had joined those protesting on the roadside on Sunday morning. “And it’s supposed to- and I believe it should- operate with the goal of rehabilitation.”
Increasing accusations of systemic injustice have mounted against the US prison system in recent years. Critics argue that private prisons allow corporations such as CoreCivicto exploit the cheap laborof a minority prison population, many of whom were incarcerated on minor drug charges, for menial tasks with little to no pay.
Many say the Drug War policies which have inflated America’s prison population to becomelargest in the world(2,121,600 as of 2018) constitute a deliberate strategy to marginalize poor communities. And reports flowing out of America’s 1,821 federal and state prisonshave painted an expanding vision of jails in decay—understaffed institutions in which prisoners often die easily avoidable deaths.
Florida is already on track this year to surpass the record numberof inmate deaths seen in 2017, in which 428 inmates diedwithin the state’s archipelago of 143 correctional institutes, the third-largest system of its kind in the country.
“Prisoners are in communication with each other (like never) before,” said Panagoti Tsolkas, an activist with IWOC and former, for a short period of time, an inmate himself. “And people on the outside are engaging and organizing. We’re building momentum. It’s an important moment to push (the issue of prison reform) hard.”
Tsolkas surmised that—when the dust settled and the numbers were tallied—this strike would become the longest one in US prison history, surpassing a similar event in September, 2016.
Police officers as well as prison security guards at both the north and south entrances to Hamilton denied to comment on the presence of protesters that morning.
“I’m just here to keep the calm,” one officer responded matter-of-factly when asked about the protesters.
Just two days before the Sunday solidarity protest, 100 Hamilton County law enforcement officials were called to the prison complexin response to an emergency situation. Some referred to the situation as a “riot” in which shanks were used while others maintained there was little more than a minor disturbance which was quickly, efficiently quelled. All prison officials adamantly denied any presence of strikers within the prison.
Several sheriffs stationed their cruisers at both ends of Hamilton on Sunday morning, likely in anticipation of the protest, their vehicles bright blue and red lights flashing silently under the rapidly intensifying morning sun.
A bizarre scene played itself out at Hamilton’s north entrance as two diametrically opposed groups—police officers from a conservative rural county and prison reform activists, many of whom were anarchists from Gainesville—gathered twenty feet across the road from one another. In vague annoyance, police officers watched idly as activists hardly a stone-throws away hurled slogans through megaphones (often of an insulting nature) and displayed homemade signs denouncing the prison, all the while blasting 90s punk rock music and NWA’s F*** tha Policeon repeat over huge, car-mounted loudspeakers.
Behind the minor spectacle of the cops and protesters lay the still, unmoving immensity of the Correctional Institute itself: a bleak scattering of windowless buildings hidden behind menacing hedgerows of barbed-wire fences, each one nearly 15 feet high. Nothing moved within the immensity of the the cream-colored complex. If the strike indeed was taking place within the confines of the prison, no one from the outside would be able to know.
“I believe the whole system needs to be changed,” Thorpe said of the prison industrial complex. “We need to listen to the prisoners and listen to their feedback. Not just ‘other’ them as if their opinion doesn’t matter. I support restoring voter rights to felons.
“I don’t have any family members or friends inside,” she said. “I just believe in supporting human rights and fighting oppression.”
“I’m a social worker,” Greene said, describing how she’d seen the trajectories of poor, marginalized people systematically funneled into prisons. “No one should have to live their life in a cage because they made a mistake under an unjust law.”
“I believe in deep and fundamental social change,” Tsolkas said of the prison strike, his voice intermingling with the sound of drums in the background. “I think that prisoners play a huge role in potentially bringing that.”