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.

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.

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."

 

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-Unionstating 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.

"If it's just one prison—let's say Sing Sing closes down January 1—then the effect will be minimal," says Ellis, a former Black Panther who spent 23 years in prison and now heads the Criminal Justice Center, a Harlem-based prisoner advocacy group. "If the demonstrations exceed 10 prisons—let's say 20 prisons—we're looking at some real problems because [prison officials'] traditional way of dealing with[a protest]—identifying and segregating the leaders—would be a lot more difficult to do."

 

As Pataki and state legislators have made life tougher for prisoners, it is the guards who have had to enforce their policies. A carrot-and-stick strategy had long prevailed, and the promise of parole was a powerful management tool for maintaining peace inside the state's prisons.

"A lot of guys have been keeping a very clean record for 20, 25 years on the chance of possibly someday getting out to see their family and see the world one more time," says an upstate correction officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now that that light has been put out, it's pretty dark. If there is nothing left for an inmate to lose, there is nothing to take away from him."

Prisoners with nothing to lose, who have lost all hope, can be dangerous. It hardly seems to matter that their anger is not directed at the men and women in uniform who will show up for work on January 1. While charges of brutal guards and dismal conditions sparked the Attica uprising nearly 30 years ago, this time the target of inmates' frustration is outside the prison walls. "It's not against the officers or the administration," explains an inmate at a maximum-security prison, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. "It's against the parole board and the governor. They have to understand we're not dollar signs."

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