Nationwide Prison Strike Ends, But It's Not Yet Clear If It Made A Difference

Sep 11, 2018
Originally published on September 11, 2018 6:16 pm
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What was billed as a nationwide three-week prison strike ended on Sunday. That end date was timed to the 47th anniversary of the infamous and violent Attica Prison uprising in New York. But it's hard to say whether this strike made a difference or even how big it was, and that's part of the story here.

Udi Ofer heads the Campaign for Smart Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union, and he's been following this. Welcome to the program.

UDI OFER: It's great to be on.

CORNISH: All right, so to begin, why don't we know more about what has or has not happened in this strike?

OFER: Yeah, it's hard to know exactly how many people in prison took part in the strike because prisons are closed environments, right? They're sealed off from the outside world. Details about the strike have been nearly impossible to confirm through official channels. But information has come out, and we expect to learn more information in the coming months as lockdowns are ended and as communications restrictions ease.

CORNISH: What are some unusual ways or data points that you can request to help you understand who participated?

OFER: First of all, we're going to be speaking to people in prison who engaged in the strikes. So we have heard of retaliation against some of the strikers. Once they come out of solitary confinement or once they're able to speak because the prison is no longer in a communication lockdown, we will talk to them. But we also plan to pursue any paper record or any paper trail that was created by the strikes. So we will be filing public records requests to be able to understand more in depth how many people participated in the strike and whether any retaliation took place against people who were striking. Unfortunately, we have heard reports of organizers being retaliated against, being moved into solitary confinement for organizing a strike. But in the coming weeks and in the coming months, we will try our best to get documentation of both the activities by the strikers and any retaliation against them.

CORNISH: Remind us again what the demands are, what these prisoners are looking for.

OFER: So the organizers of the strike have outlined 10 demands. And they include the improvement of living conditions, better wages for work done in prison. But they're also looking for the restoration of basic rights - so, for example, the restoration of voting rights for people who are currently incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. And finally, they're also looking for the repeal of laws such as the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which passed under President Clinton and made it very hard for people in prison to follow a federal lawsuit. So you know, when you look at the list of 10 demands, it's very fair to describe them as reasonable demands that are just looking for the restoration of basic dignity and respect.

CORNISH: At the same time, we've talked about how hard it is to know how many people participated. How visible has this really been to decision-makers?

OFER: You know, I think it varies. There are some members of Congress, for example, who have spoken out in support of the demands. On the other hand, some members of Congress who even sit on the prison oversight committee didn't even know that this strike was taking place. What gives me hope is that many news outlets, including, you know, NPR, The New York Times, Time magazine have been reporting about the strikes. So I think Americans are being introduced to these important issues, and a new awareness is being created.

CORNISH: Udi Ofer is from the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice. Thank you for speaking with us.

OFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.