Nation-wide prison strikes reveal problems close to home
According to the National Reentry Resource Center, 9 million people are released from state prisons each year back into their communities.
Michihiro Sugata, assistant professor of criminology and justice studies at Humboldt State University, said rural areas with high poverty rates have high incarceration rates.
This means many families in Humboldt County are directly affected by people in prison. Humboldt county is just south of Del Norte county, home to Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s supermax state prison.
“So many people in this community are tied and involved with this issue and should care,” Sugata said.
From Aug. 21 through Sept. 9, prisoners in 17 states participated in boycotts, hunger strikes, work strikes and sit-ins. The nation wide prison strike was in response to the April 15 riot in Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum state prison in South Carolina.
According to Shadowproof this was the deadliest incident of violence in a United States prison in a quarter of a century. Seven prisoners were killed when prison officials turned their backs on the riot they provoked.
The strikes started on the anniversary of the 1971 prison rebellion in California’s San Quentin Prison and ended on the anniversary of the famous New York’s Attica Prison uprising of 1971.
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee demanded humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end of “modern day slavery.”
Sugata specializes in economic justice, and how finances work in society and correctional facilities. California has the largest public education system, as well as one of the largest prison systems — both competing for state funding.
He said research suggests prisoners would have tremendous success if they bridged education with incarceration.
Sugata said we have the resources and capacity to measure this benefit, it just comes down to political will. If we get people educated we give higher opportunity for employment. The number one thing to combat recidivism is employment.
“We have the opportunity in California to do great things,” Sugata said.
Sugata knows the social cost of incarceration is enormous, and that there are no direct social benefits for keeping people locked up.
A study by the Vera Institute of Justice said that of the 40 states they surveyed, prison systems in the U.S. cost taxpayers $38.8 billion. Sugata said this escalates each year.
“Bringing education to corrections would not only be morally great, but economically great,” Sugata said.
Troy Williams, an HSU student who was formerly incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison, knows first hand the conditions inside prison walls and the importance of the strike.
Williams said there isn’t a push to educate and that most people don’t care. There are people like Williams who are moving forward and would benefit from more services. Those still incarcerated would have more opportunity at education if the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s demands were met.
“They want decent wages,” Williams said, “they want opportunities.”
Williams said his reintegration wasn’t a smooth transition. He said there’s a need in Humboldt County to do more to welcome formerly incarcerated individuals.
Williams said there are programs for veterans, but not for the formerly incarcerated — even though they suffer from the same issues. The prison strikes address stigma attached to incarceration.
“I commend the men for getting together and starting the strike,” Williams said.
An integral person in Williams’ life after release is Sharon Fennell, also known as her KHSU DJ name, Sista Soul.
Fennell is a long time prison activist that has been following the nation’s trend of the growing prison industrial complex.
Fennell said the radio station set her on the path to activism in the 80s, and has been fighting for prisoners rights since living in Humboldt County.
Most people in prison will be released. It is in our best interest to have them come out whole and intact.
“We want them better than when they came in,” Fennell said.
Fennell said men and women who have never had access to education before deserve help from the universities. Educational experience is harder without programs and are needed.
“Rehabilitation is not the correctional facilities M.O,” Fennel said.
Zuzka Sabata co-founded the Pelican Bay State Prison’s first theater program under the California Arts Council Arts-in-Corrections. Sabata said participating in these types of programs greatly decreases recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. It helps people cope with being incarcerated and leads to having less behavioral problems in the system.
“There needs to be community wide addressing of people reintegrating into society,” Sabata said.
Sabata said our society’s predominant stigma is people can’t be rehabilitated and that needs to be changed.
The idea of rehabilitation of creating environments where people can reintegrate into society is very important and the pathway needs to be paved to do so. There is a significant lack of support networks and employment that brings them back in the cycle.
“Rural areas have a revolving door syndrome,” Sabata said, “we need more re-entry services.”