Next month, on September 9th, the United States could witness the largest wave of prison strikes in its history. Strike actions across the country are being organized by the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. The strikes aim to mark the anniversary of 1971’s Attica prison revolt. I spoke to Azzura Crispin, an activist in Austin Texas who is the media co-chair of the IWOC as well as the founder of PAPS (Prison Abolition Prisoner Solidarity) about the plan for the strike and the opportunities for radical activism it presents for YDS and DSA members. In "Toward an Anti-racist Socialism," YDS recognized the intersections between capitalism and racist systems like mass incarceration. Organizing around prison strikes and the labor rights of prisoners helps to further highlight the degree to which capitalism and racism work together in society.
This interview has been modified for length and clarity.
Alec Shea: Thank you so much for speaking to me. To start, what is the IWOC and how did it come about?
Azzura Crispino: IWOC, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, is a standing committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It was created a few years ago when prisoners wanted to unionize, wanted to organize, but there was no other union or organization that was willing to take them in, so they reached out to the IWW and essentially said “can we form our own committee within your union.” The IWW has a long history of radical organizing, we began as the union that was most willing to get workers arrested and have them sit in jail in order to shut down the jail. We’ve been doing these things since the 1890s, so when these workers reached out to us and said “look, we’re incarcerated, we want to unionize, the state does not recognize our right to unionize, can we still work with you?” We of course said “yes.” IWOC is open to any prisoner, and it’s also open to people on the other side of the razor-wire who wish to organize with prisoners and stand in solidarity with them.
Alec Shea: Could you tell us more about the strikes that are planned for September 9th?
Azzura Crispino: Sure, it should be mentioned that IWOC is one of the many organizations that is helping to organize. We’re trying to be, kind of, the umbrella organization to help connect disparate groups. The strike was really first called for by the Free Alabama Movement in January of 2014 and then in Texas, Malik Washington called for a strike that happened in April and May. So there have been a lot of different groups that have been coming together over the last few years, but you can kind of think of IWOC as being the giant umbrella that is trying to connect and support all of these disparate groups. The struggle really began with the prisoners themselves and it popped up all around the country at the same time even in situations where prisoners didn’t necessarily have contact with one another.
Alec Shea :How widespread can we expect this wave of strikes in September to be?
Azzura Crispino: It’s actually going international, we’ve just had news that comrades in Greece are also planning on taking part in the strike action on September 9. September 9th is a very important date because it’s the anniversary of the Attica uprising. You can expect that these strikes will be very widespread. We’ve already had significant strikes and resistance actions in Texas, Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin. Wisconsin, for example, has many workers that are currently on hunger strike who are being force-fed. This weekend there was a really fantastic action that was done at Waupan (Waupan Correctional Institution) to stand in solidarity with them. Comrades surrounded the prison and had a speak-out. In addition, they went and flyered the homes of a particularly sadistic guard and the neighborhood the warden lives in in order to make sure that the neighbors know what these people are doing. There have been actions around prisons, actions within prisons in terms of work stoppages and hunger strikes. On the first weekend of September we’re having a major conference organized in Oakland and we’re expecting organizers from all across the country. There are also other organizations organizing formerly incarcerated activists to spread the word. So this is really going to be across the country. It could be dangerous for me to say “this is how many people we know are committed to striking and these are the units they’ll be striking in” but you can expect this to be a major strike action taking place nationwide.
Alec Shea: What demands are the strikes going to be focused on? What have incarcerated workers demanded?
Azzura Crispino: Some of the demands vary from state to state. In Texas, we have a $100 copayment for prisoners to go see a doctor. We also have very few people who are able to get Hepatitis B treatment, that’s a huge issue because Hepatitis B is rampant in prisons. In terms of labor specific requests, let’s start with the fact that prisoners who are in general population are required to work, most often for no wages at all. When they are paid, their wage is maybe 10 to 14 cents an hour. In addition their working conditions are often brutal. We’ve had reports of people being asked to operate electrical machinery even if there’s standing water in the room. In Texas we’ve had reports of workers having to work in units without air conditioning, being asked to work in hot kitchens. The heat index in Austin last week was 116 degrees so you can imagine what it would have been like being in a unit that doesn’t have any windows or air-conditioning and being forced to wash dishes or engage in other work that can be very hot. Obviously the strikes are also a reaction against the brutality of prison life, that includes people getting beaten, having their property stolen, cases of sexual assault by guards or by other prisoners, a lack of quality food or sufficient food. A lot of people are resisting a practice called “bird-feeding,” giving prisoners maybe a thousand calories a day instead of the standard two thousand. Often prisoners are told that if they work, they will be given reductions in their sentences. The reality of the situation is that this “good time” is often never even accredited. If it is mentioned at parole hearings, there’s nothing guaranteeing that that “good time” will actually take time off their sentences.
Alec Shea: You mention the dangers facing organizers in prisons, how are you organizing around the potentially brutal crackdowns incarcerated workers could face for striking?
Azzura Crispino: Part of what we’re doing is putting together a rapid response alert system so that effectively what will happen is that activists like your readers can always go to IWOC.noblogs.org or itsgoingdown.org and any time that there’s been a notification that there has been a brutal crackdown, there will be requests for call-in campaigns and write-in campaigns. Prison officials respond very strongly when there is a response from the outside. That’s part of the reason why anything that builds solidarity and creates connection between prisoners and those on the outside is so important. For example, right now, there has already been a brutal crackdown in Alabama and we’re currently asking people to call in and write in in response to that. The reality of the situation is that a warden, or individual guards, can choose to gas an entire unit and beat up prisoners and if people on the outside don’t know, then nothing happens. On the other hand if that same warden gets a hundred phone calls and a hundred emails and his or her higher-ups get even more calls within 24 hours, then they’re going to say “this is not something that we can get away with doing.” That gives some modicum of protection to our prisoners. That being said, these workers who are striking understand that long term solitary confinement or administrative segregation is a possibility, being beaten and gassed is a possibility. There’s a very real possibility that when they go on work-stoppages, that also means that they will not be delivered food. When you think of a strike you think of people picketing outside of their workplace but then going home. For a prisoner, when you go on strike, you remain where you remain where you are striking 24/7 so it’s really important that everyone on the outside who is sympathetic to this cause be willing to take a few minutes to call in and write in when we hear about brutal repression because we know it’s going to happen.
Alec Shea: What are some of the practical difficulties of organizing workers in prison and how do you work around them?
Azzura Crispino: Communication across the razor-wire is always an issue. Almost all of the communication is monitored by guards. There are a few prisoners that have contraband cellphones and we’ve been trying to make use of that as sparingly but effectively as possible. Any time a prisoner is labeled as an organizer of the strike, there’s a good chance that he or she is going to be thrown into administrative segregation or solitary confinement and that’s going to substantially decreases out ability to communicate with them. To overcome these challenges, many of our organizers are formerly incarcerated workers who can understand the conditions in prisons and what prisoners might want even if they aren’t currently incarcerated themselves. Many of us who are activists have been writing to prisoners for years and some of us for decades. That makes it easier because you know what a specific prisoner, or even groups of prisoners, are going to want or how they’re going to react to a specific situation. For example, right before the strike happened the Texas Department of Justice decided to roll out a new offender handbook which banned offenders from having any social media presence. To a certain extent this a ridiculous rule because prisoners are not allowed to go online so it’s not as though they could have their own Facebook or Twitter pages, these would be accounts that are being run by supporters. So that’s a limitation on my free speech rights, not the prisoner’s. One of the prisoners that I support is a Chicano anarchist named Xinachtli Alvaro Luna Hernandez and I run a twitter account in solidarity with him. When I was asked to give an interview and talk about that, there was a tension between running the risk that my friend will catch a 90 day disciplinary ticked and keeping quiet. In his case, I knew him well enough to know that he would gladly take that 90 day disciplinary ticket if he knew that word was getting out about prison conditions. Having those kinds of long-term relationships really help those of us who are on the outside make sure that we’re advocating adequately for those comrades of ours who are on the inside. Sometimes it feels like you’re talking about what it’s like to have sex without ever having had it. I’ve never been incarcerated but nevertheless I’m in a position of having to advocate on behalf of people who have been incarcerated or are incarcerated because, for a whole host of reasons, they just don’t have the access to be able to do that advocacy work themselves so we try to do the best we can with limited resources but there are limitations.
Alec Shea: What can DSA and YDS organizers on the outside who are interested in helping the prisoners do to show solidarity and materially help their effort?
Azzura Crispino: The first thing is to start writing to prisoners. It’s really important for prisoners to get mail. Guards know when prisoners are getting mail and when they’re not getting mail. A prisoner who’s getting a lot of mail is less likely to face repression because the guards know that this is a person who can write to a lot of people and get immediate support. In addition, the very act of receiving mail is an immediate boost to morale so I would suggest that it’s great to write to one prisoner but that if you can send postcards to several hundred, that’s even better. Secondly, noise demonstrations, speak out demonstrations, anything that can happen at a prison or in neighborhoods, whether that’s flyering, banner drops, things of that nature, talking to your friends about supporting the strike. IWOC, obviously can always use donations. Members of unions can go to their local union and ask their union hall to endorse a resolution standing in solidarity with the striking prisoners. There may be board meetings of various organizations that support the prison-industrial complex in your area and that can be a really great opportunity for street demonstrations. There may be corporations that are benefiting from prison labor. There’s a long list of corporations use prison labor so you can go and stage a protest against them. We need people to help get the word out to the press. That could include writing a letter to the editor asking a newspaper to talk about the prison strike. One very powerful method of demonstrating against solitary confinement is to recreate, with tape or chalk, the space of a solitary confinement cell on the street and ask passers by to write postcards to prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, especially those who find themselves their in retaliation for their organizing efforts. Obviously, you can become a member of, or get in touch with your local IWW and IWOC chapter or other organizations that are supporting prison reform, abolition or just supporting prisoners. That includes various local Anarchist Black Cross chapters. I’m also the cofounder of PAPS (Prison Abolition Prisoner Solidarity). We’re a pen-pals to prisoners organization. There are so many ways to get involved and some of them are really pretty creative. I think the most important one is being willing to respond when there’s retaliation. We know that there’s going to be repression and its going to be brutal. It’s already happening and its going to get worse on September 9th and going forward. It’s important to remember that we expect these strike actions to be long-term and protracted. So there may be need in December of next year for people to be calling in to prison officials. Really anything that you can imagine that’s a standard activist action can easily be modified to support these strikes. One of the things that’s unique about supporting prisoners is that there’s a lot that can be done from home so people who may not have any other activists around them can still write to a prisoner, can still call in. You don’t necessarily have to be a boot on the ground in order to be effective.
Alec Shea: Thanks so much for speaking to me.
Azurra Crispino: Thanks!
Alec Shea is a YDS member and student at Wesleyan University.