Strike Behind Bars

Prisoners Plan a Work Stoppage To Protest Parole Cuts

Prisoners first began circulating the photocopied manifesto more than six months ago inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility. "WAKE UP!!!" a longtime Sing Sing inmate urged his fellow prisoners. "As you probably have been noticing, since . . . [George] Pataki became governor in January 1995, it has become harder and harder, month after month, and year after year to be released on parole in New York State." The anonymous author denounced Pataki's prison policies and concluded by calling for a work stoppage, in which inmates would refuse to cook, mop, or perform any of their other jobs.

A work strike by prisoners may not sound like a major event, but inside prison any large-scale demonstration of inmate solidarity could lead to violence. Nobody knows how many prisoners or which of the state's 70 prisons may participate in a work stoppage, nor what its impact might be. Inmates say the protest will begin January 1, but prison officials are already taking steps to quash it by rooting out ringleaders. Inmates caught with copies of the "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto have been sent to solitary confinement for up to three years.

The chief complaint of the "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto—and many New York prisoners—involves changes in the state's parole policies. Pataki eliminated parole for repeat felons in 1995, then ended it for all violent felons in 1998. While these laws are not retroactive, and therefore affect only new inmates, long-term prisoners insist the state's 19-member parole board has also made it much tougher for them to win release, especially if they were convicted of a violent crime.

illustration by Limbert Fabian

Fifty-four percent of inmates convicted of violent crimes got released after their first trip before the parole board in fiscal year 1991-92. Six years later, that number had dropped to 33 percent. Longtime prisoners who thought they had a good shot at going home instead found themselves joining the "deuce club," the inmates' moniker for those who are denied parole and so must wait two years until their next chance to go before the board.

Pataki insists his tougher parole policy is a smart crime-fighting strategy. "Early parole release is not a right," says Caroline Quartararo, a spokesperson for the governor. "It's a privilege. The decision to keep violent felons behind bars longer is a good thing for anyone who is a law-abiding citizen on the streets of New York."

For New York's prisoners, the parole issue tops a long list of grievances. "The feeling is that people died at Attica for what we had, for the so-called privileges we're losing," says Jason Nicholas, a 29-year-old prisoner at Wallkill Correctional Facility.

The 1971 inmate uprising at Attica prison focused public attention on the inhumane treatment and living conditions of New York's inmates, and it led to widespread reforms. Now, Nicholas says, "The state is chipping away at that standard of living. First it was [the elimination of] work release [for violent offenders], then college programs, and now parole. Politicians don't want to hear our complaints, so that leaves very little avenues open for us to gain political power, to try to improve things or at least to arrest this slide."

The "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto features a grab bag of prisoner demands: improved job training, better drug treatment programs, more academics, reform of the state's stiff penalties for drug offenders. The manifesto's author also charges that inmates are kept in prison longer because they are a source of cheap labor.

"Why should we be the raw materials in the DOCS [Department of Correctional Services] prison industrial corporation which only serves the interests of politicians to be elected into office, and to provide jobs for rural Northern New Yorkers?" the manifesto states. "Why should we work to maintain the prisons as porters, cooks, plumbers, masons, welders, tailors, roofers, painters . . . or in any capacity necessary to keep DOCS prison corporation functioning properly?"

The manifesto insists that there is no longer much for prisoners to gain by performing sub-minimum wage work, or trying to cooperate with the system in any other way. "Right now it does not make a difference if [we] . . . work hard to maintain DOCS, or if we behave," it states. "We are not released at our minimum [sentences]."

The "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto does not mention the recent scandal engulfing the state's parole board, but prisoners cite it as another reason they are angry. For more than two years, a federal grand jury has been investigating accusations of a pay-for-parole scheme in which the parole board gave favorable treatment to the relatives of Pataki campaign contributors. So far, a former state parole commissioner has been sentenced to two years in prison for lying. And last week, a fundraiser was charged with soliciting more than $36,000 from the parents of three prisoners by promising early parole.

Inside the state's prisons, inmates are using a range of tactics to express their frustraton and broadcast their solidarity. In the mess hall at Sing Sing, inmates refuse to talk, and wear their state-issued uniform—dark green cotton pants and shirts—rather than their own clothes, so they all look alike.

Last summer, prisoners at Otisville Correctional Facility took the unusual step of all showing up at the mess hall for breakfast—a meal they often skip—to register their displeasure and keep the officers extra busy. And at some facilities, inmates are now emptying their prison bank accounts and stockpiling food in their cells to prepare for the possibility that they could be locked in their cells for a long stretch of time come the new year.

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