“The Legitimacy of the System Is Crumbling”

Heather Ann Thompson

There's still a lot we don't know about the nationwide prison strike. But we do know one thing: the legitimacy of American prisons is on the decline.

David McNew / Getty

Interview by
Shawn Gude

When the national prison strike kicked off last month, it sparked something unusual: headlines in mainstream outlets. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Time magazine, USA Today — all devoted attention to the actions.

But the spotlight quickly dissipated amid the darkness of prison walls. A week after the strike’s official end date (September 9 — the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising), we still don’t know how many prisoners participated, the scope of repression they faced, or how many prisons were affected.

What we do know is based on information from organizers. Prisoners in at least sixteen states (and one prison in Canada) engaged in actions like work stoppages, hunger strikes, and commissary boycotts to protest a prison system that fails to “recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” Authorities responded to the nineteen-day strike by locking down prisons, throwing people in solitary confinement, and placing prisoners in “dry cells” (cells that lack water or working toilets). Some prisons remain on lockdown.

The trigger for the strike was a riot in April at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution. According to authorities, the violence exploded amid a conflict over “territory, contraband, and cellphones” (which are illegal, but more common in South Carolina prisons than elsewhere).

But as historian Heather Ann Thompson notes in the following interview, that account, just like much of what we hear from prison officials, was bunk. Horrendous conditions and egregious mismanagement fueled the violence. And officials’ neglect proved lethal.

Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude spoke with Thompson — the author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy — shortly after the prison strike officially concluded. They discussed the significance of the strike, the opacity of prisons, and why the stigma of incarceration “is being whittled away.”

Shawn Gude

I wanted to start by asking you about the prison riot in April in South Carolina. You wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the incident, and your account differed from the official one. What actually happened?

Heather Ann Thompson

Very tragically, the riot was an outright explosion of prisoner violence, and the victims were other prisoners, seven of them. Immediately, not just the DOC [Department of Corrections] but the media in general was in the mode of: “These are animals. This is why we have prisons.” And the DOC’s line was that this was indicative of why we need to ban cellphones from prisons, because it was a turf fight over cellphones.

The two things that I knew from experience were that number one, never ever trust what the DOC says is going on. And number two, if there was that level of violence, it was most likely the result of extreme overcrowding and neglect.

Initially I didn’t know much, but then after I was on Democracy Now!, I got lots of contacts from people who were family members or folks on the inside. This was super interesting because, of course, the very fact that there were cellphones meant that I could actually have conversations with people, they could send me video, they could send me pictures.

That’s when the real story emerged: that the prison had essentially put two rival gangs in the same housing unit, and that the housing unit was so decrepit, that basically it was inevitable violence. They knew it was going to happen, and when it happened, there wasn’t a guard in sight. Essentially they didn’t show up for seven hours. They said it was for the safety of their staff, but the videos I received showed that after the initial rumble that resulted in stabbings, it was completely, eerily silent and in fact, the prisoners were helping each other and trying to get medical care.

So South Carolina is a really important predecessor to the strike, because it showed the depth of the crisis. Just like George Jackson‘s murder in 1971 [in San Quentin prison] was a real precursor to the Attica rebellion — it was a wake-up call that if you’re given a sentence you might end up dead.

Shawn Gude

Can you talk more about the flow of information that we get from prisons? It’s obviously very difficult for journalists to get a decent sense of what’s happening in prisons, and then you also have the added obfuscation from officials, too.

Heather Ann Thompson

Right. The fact that journalists are barred from them, the fact that lawyers are largely barred from them, and certainly that the public doesn’t have a clue what’s going on and that state officials can report whatever they want without corroboration — this is just outrageous.

It points to not just the depths of the crisis inside, but the crisis of transparency in our criminal justice system. Journalists who even try to file FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests are blocked at every turn.

The other sad part of it is that many journalists call up DOC officials, they ask them what happened, and then that’s what goes in the news. That’s it. There’s a shockingly low bar for corroboration anytime it comes to prisons.

Shawn Gude

So let’s talk about the most recent prison strike. It’s difficult to figure out the scope and shape of it, and I’m sure more news will trickle out in the coming days and weeks, but can you give an overview of what we know happened over those nineteen days?

Heather Ann Thompson

It’s kind of stunning how little we know.

We do know that quite a few prisoners and organizations on the outside have answered the call to protest. And in some institutions, an individual, or individuals, have paid a high price for doing so — they’ve ended up in solitary, ended up with write-ups.

But you’re absolutely right, we’re not going to know for some time, because it will take some time for these places to no longer be on lockdown, so that family members can visit loved ones — because it’s often through them that we hear what’s going on — and that prisoners can get pen and paper and write letters.

What’s really most significant about this strike is not actually whether anyone went out. Whether two people or two million people, what was deeply significant was two things: one, the outside support for it — which, frankly, was virtually nonexistent [during the 2016 strike]. And by that I mean family members showing up to these institutions, organizations showing up to these institutions and holding solidarity protests. That’s really significant.

And then the second thing is that the mainstream media, from the Washington Post to GQ, is covering this. That didn’t happen in 2016, and I think that’s because in 2016 there was this tremendous faith in the bipartisan moment of reform. A lot of people weren’t interested in what prisoners had to say, and if anything, thought if they were protesting it was probably gumming up the works.

But now, in the age of Trump, and certainly after what happened in South Carolina, I don’t think anyone’s under any illusion that this thing is getting fixed on the federal dime.

Shawn Gude

Reading the prisoners’ ten demands, it’s sort of astonishing how modest they were. They were just asking to be treated like human beings.

Heather Ann Thompson

Yeah. I think that that was the resonance with the Attica demands, this mix of intimate and broader policy demands. So there were very basic things, such as basic health care and nutrition. And then there were the policy concerns — the Attica brothers, for example, asked for reform of parole, and these prisoners were asking for rescinding the PLRA [Prison Litigation Reform Act] and Truth in Sentencing.

Prisoners have always been very savvy in understanding that it is about the basic human rights, but it’s also about the political calculi that create this crisis in the first place.

Shawn Gude

Can you talk about the logistics for organizing this sort of thing? I know contraband cellphones were important, but obviously this is an incredibly different thing to pull off.

Heather Ann Thompson

Yeah, again, this is one of these things that we’re not going to know as much as we need to, both because I think folks on the inside are terrified of revealing that, but also because some places have cell phones, like South Carolina, but plenty of places don’t. In fact, most places don’t.

I was actually quite struck by that, that I could talk to somebody who was on lockdown. And you know, they’re talking to their daughter every night to help with homework — that just kind of blew me away. And I’ve been at this a long time.

All of that said, remember that when George Jackson was killed [in San Quentin, California], everybody the next day in Attica went to the mess hall in silence, with black armbands. And that was in upstate New York, in less than twenty-four hours.

So the prison grapevine is also remarkably tenacious and kind of extraordinary. Word does get out, people do hear. They hear from family members, they overhear guards, they read the prison legal news, they read the Bayview, they listen to the radio, and in some institutions there are televisions.

And this is one of the greatest ironies, right? These are the most closed institutions we have, in terms of public accessibility, and yet because everyone who is in them is a human being, what a surprise — they think, they read, they articulate, they plan, they share information.

That is not to minimize what you are also getting at, which is that it is extraordinarily difficult. Probably the most difficult part is that when it’s happening, and when people are actually making the decision to stand up, that’s when they’re the most cut off and they probably don’t know if anyone else is standing up with them.

Shawn Gude

You’ve talked to prisoners that have participated in these sorts of actions before. How do they find the fortitude to fight?

Heather Ann Thompson

You know, this is the thing. There are so many who don’t. People are terrified. They’re terrified of getting more time, they’re terrified of retaliation — the physical retaliation, the solitary. And that’s why oftentimes conditions can be so horrific and you don’t see a blip out of the prison. Some of the worst prisons are not erupting.

The only way to understand that is to understand the level of fear and isolation, and ironically, this remaining — it humbles me every time I see it — this remaining sense that if I somehow play by the rules, if I keep my head down, if I do my time, that I’ll somehow escape this nightmare. That it’ll be better.

So sometimes, the people that stand up are actually those with the least to lose — the lifers, people on death row, and people who have just had it — and they erupt as much in anger as in a clearly articulated, “I’m going erupt in the hope that X, Y, or Z happens.”

Shawn Gude

We do know more about the actions that have taken place outside the prison walls. Can you talk about those, and again, the significance of them, compared to previous strikes?

Heather Ann Thompson

Yeah, that’s what I really hope that the media will pay more attention to. One of the most incredible things I saw in South Carolina was the family members that showed up outside of the Lee Correctional facility to protest. These are people that are not necessarily members of a prison abolition group or some kind of a radical group. And yet, they’re moved. They have lost children to this. They are much more willing to stand up.

The stigma of having a child incarcerated or a spouse incarcerated — that is being whittled away, and people are willing to speak up. It used to be when I’d give talks that nobody would ever confess to having a loved one on the inside. Every single time I do a public talk now, someone stands up and says, “my child” or “myself.”

It’s really amazing. That shows you that the legitimacy of the system is in fact crumbling.

Shawn Gude

What do you see as the most significant roadblocks right now to meaningful prison reform? As you mentioned, many (or maybe all) of the issues that prisoners are fighting over are issues that prisoners in Attica were fighting over as well.

Heather Ann Thompson

The long history of why it is that we could follow such a dramatic rebellion like Attica and end up here is that we got Attica so wrong, and there were so many lies told about what had happened there that it kicked up a really terrible turn in our justice system.

But as to why we can’t remedy it now, I actually am not sure I can give you a helpful answer. I mean, I think about this a lot.

On the one hand, the legitimacy of this thing is so corrupted, from outside college students looking at it to family members looking at it to the people on the inside looking at it. So, in that sense, I feel like it’s a matter of time before politicians catch up. On the other hand, at the state level, which is where the serious, serious problems are, these are such deeply, deeply entrenched bureaucracies, and race-baiting and fear-baiting are so effective in the media. That’s what makes me uncertain.

But once a family member starts showing up and once people start speaking up in public and saying, “That’s my kid” and “Not in my name,” I think it’s a turning point.

Shawn Gude

Finally, back to the prison strike itself. How soon do you think we’ll have a clear picture of what happened?

Heather Ann Thompson

To be honest, I’m not sure we will this time. The last time we got the information we did, it was because specific institutions like Kinross had exploded so dramatically that there was a real fallout. There were large bodies of people moved to other institutions, and there were lawsuits, and family members didn’t know where their kids were. It was pretty dramatic. I’m not sure that I’ve heard any equally dramatic situations here, though I could be wrong on that.

We’re in this really interesting wait-and-see period, but the emphasis is not on who did or didn’t go out. The emphasis is on the attention that this issue generates. And if it weren’t working, it wouldn’t generate this kind of interest.

I don’t think anybody who’s covering this from any newspaper believes for a moment that prisons are humane. And that itself is news. That itself is a victory.