Strike Behind Bars

Prisoners Plan a Work Stoppage To Protest Parole Cuts

Though these protest tactics are peaceful, some prisoners have already resorted to violence to ensure the cooperation of fellow inmates. When several Sing Sing inmates refused to wear their "greens"—the state-issued uniforms—in the mess hall, their cells were torched. Some fearful prisoners have asked officials to move them into "protective custody" cells away from the general population.

Wearing greens and staying silent in the mess hall are familiar protest tactics, though they are fairly rare and, to prison officials, have ominous overtones. "In the week before the Attica uprising, there was a silent protest in the mess hall that should have been a signal to the administration that there was some serious unrest," says Eddie Ellis, who was imprisoned at Attica during the infamous inmate revolt that left 39 people dead.

The mess hall is often a prison's noisiest area. But "when there's 1000 guys eating in a mess hall and no one is talking, the silence is deafening," Ellis says. "If I were a prison guard, I would know there's a serious problem going on there."

illustration by Limbert Fabian


Sing Sing is not the only hotbed of prisoner organizing. At Green Haven Correctional Facility, another maximum-security prison, some inmates were discussing possible protests last December, before the "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto surfaced. Officials recently shipped more than 40 prisoners from Green Haven to other facilities around the state, a favorite method for derailing organizing efforts and sending a message to other inmates.

Meanwhile, inside Green Haven, officials discovered two plastic containers of gunpowder on November 10. In early December, they found a bomb inside Auburn Correctional Facility, and officials last week uncovered a large amount of sulfur at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, according to Dennis Fitzpatrick, spokesperson for the state prison guards' union. There is no evidence tying these incidents to a possible work stoppage, but they have fueled fears.

"When you find weapons and explosive devices, you can only assume that if the non-violent portion [of the protest] is not successful, then it may result in something more drastic," says the guard union's Fitzpatrick. "We're taking very seriously the possibility of a potential problem." James Flateau, the spokesperson for the Department of Correctional Services, did not return several calls for comment.

At prisons across the state, officials have been pumping inmate snitches for information. They have searched the computers used by prisoner organizations. And in some facilities, they have also confiscated copies of news stories mentioning a possible protest.

Last week, the Legal Aid Society in New York City received a documented complaint from a prisoner caught distributing the "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto. Prison officials punished the inmate by sending him to solitary confinement for three years, where he will spend 23 hours a day in his cell.

Just a few years ago, an inmate had to assault a staff member or fellow prisoner in order to earn a punishment of three years in solitary confinement. John Boston, director of the Prisoners' Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, points out that, of the inmates disciplined in 1995 for breaking prison rules, officials only sent .4 percent to solitary confinement for longer than two years. About the prospect of a prisoner locked all day in his cell for three years, Boston says, "There is a substantial potential of pretty serious psychological damage from isolation for that period of time."


The possibility of an inmate work stoppage has put prisoners' rights groups in a decidedly uncomfortable position. Many share the same views as the writer of the "WAKE UP!!!" manifesto, but do not support an inmate strike.

Daniel Greenberg, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, attempted to head off any criticism by publishing a letter December 1 in the Albany Times-Union stating his organization's opposition to the work stoppage. "The Legal Aid Society is trying to discourage it by telling inmates who contact us that we don't support it and that there are negative consequences to any kind of organized actions by prisoners because it's illegal," says Claudette Spencer, a staff attorney. "I don't think any good will come of it. The work has to come from the outside, and those efforts are now being done in an organized fashion."

Last month, Spencer held a meeting at the Legal Aid Society about parole, which drew 300 inmates' relatives, lawyers, and activists—a far larger crowd than most attendees had expected. The newly created Coalition for Parole Restoration has held a few meetings around the state and is now crafting a long-term strategy. Meanwhile, Legal Aid attorneys are considering filing a lawsuit addressing parole. About plans for a possible work stoppage, Spencer says, "It just happened to come around at the same time."

Meanwhile, inside the prisons, guards are not looking forward to punching in for work on January 1. "A nonviolent protest can go sour in a heartbeat," says an officer at a maximum-security prison, who asked not to be identified. "All it takes is a couple knuckleheads before something that's supposed to be nonviolent becomes violent." To quell any unrest and solve possible Y2K problems, prison officials will have extra officers on duty when the new year starts.

It is impossible to know exactly what the impact of a prisoner strike might be. A sizable portion of New York's 70,000 state prisoners hold jobs. For an average of $1.05 a day, inmates perform the daily chores that keep the prisons running—washing clothes and sheets, scooping food onto plates, sweeping the corridors. And 3500 inmates work in various industries, including grinding lenses for eyeglasses, assembling furniture, and sewing guards' uniforms.

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