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I Know What It Means to Strike at Rikers

by former political prisoner David Campbell / January 14

I helped organize a strike at Rikers during the first wave. Those striking now are not to be ignored.

This article was published in our Perspectives section. David Campbell is a writer and anti-fascist activist who helped organize a strike while incarcerated at Rikers Island in 2020. 

Two days ago, I read that there was a massive strike underway at Rikers Island. It brought back a flood of memories—dingy, scuffed white walls, clanging metal doors, a near-total dearth of comfort or privacy, and, perhaps strangely, a sense of solidarity so strong it moves me still.

In March of 2020, I was a prisoner in the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island. All my clothes were forest green. My bedsheets were stamped “DOC” in block letters. My neighbor on one side was a Dominican-American crack dealer with an imposing stature and infectious laugh; on the other, a tall, gaunt heroin addict from the Caucasus who I gave English lessons to two or three times a week.

The men in my 48-bed dorm all had their petty beefs and claims to a place on the totem pole. Who controlled the TV, who could use what phone, who was first in line for chow–these things take on oversized importance in jail. But all that changed when the pandemic hit. The Department of Correction seemed like it was trying to win a prize for most-bungled Covid response: It refused to take any serious attempt at mitigating the spread of the disease, testing for its presence, or social distancing, even as it claimed publicly that everything was under control. The extent of the response was to slap up posters advising us to social distance–a physically impossible feat–in twelve different languages. We were offered the most nonsensical advice to ward off Covid, like “drink green tea.”

After a week of mounting frustration at the DOC’s hypocrisy, they cut off our phones for several hours one morning. The phones are a lifeline in jail. They’re the only direct method of communication with the outside world. The reason, we were told, was to encourage us to clean our dorm. In fact, we had organized ourselves into cleaning crews, schedules and all, to make up for the fact that the institution was not taking any measures to protect us. This was the spark that lit the fire, and we went on strike. Suddenly, the fact that we all wore forest green and had DOC-stamped bedsheets mattered more than our backgrounds, convictions, or gang affiliations.

With near-unanimity, we refused to leave the dorms for work or institutional meals. When the phones came back on briefly, I communicated a list of grievances and demands to an activist friend on the outside, who spread the word on social media. We wanted masks, Covid tests, and cleaning supplies, and the immediate release of as many prisoners as possible, measures the Board of Correction had called for only days earlier. Prisoners on Rikers often share food and other scarce resources with each other, but once we went on strike, this practice became something else altogether. Volunteers began soliciting donations from among us and cooking giant collective meals. Though disputes still arose, they seemed less frequent and less frivolous.

Now, prisoners in RNDC are striking again. Our strike numbered about 90 and lasted one day. Theirs numbers 200 and has now gone on for seven. Their claims of being denied access to medical and mental health care, outdoor exercise, law library services, and humane living conditions are all entirely believable—I witnessed all of them first hand during my time there. 

This sort of refusal to comply is called a “stick-up” in Rikers lingo. A stick-up may not be an organized strike. A prisoner refusing to exchange his sneakers for the painfully thin DOC-issued shoes upon arrival, or refusing to allow himself to be transferred to another housing unit, for example, would be considered sticking it up. Sticking it up also refers to a broad range of less-than-noble goals and tactics; splashing a guard with urine because you haven’t been brought new video games in two weeks, for example.

But the sort of action underway at RNDC happens way more than you might think—it just tends to go unreported. One reason is simply because it’s less splashy. Stories of violence tend to grab attention. Another is that many of those incarcerated have no way to get word to the outside about their actions. Many, sadly, have no one to call. They often give away their phone calls, or sell them to other prisoners for things like ramen noodles or potato chips.

Nor do most have a frame of reference for strategic activism. Even after we had established a broad consensus to go on strike, for example, many of my fellow prisoners asked me what the point was. Striking prisoners may never think of themselves as “on strike” or communicate their actions to the outside world, let alone with a clear list of demands and grievances.

But within the walls, sticking it up is a fairly common occurrence. On Christmas Eve when I was incarcerated, the guards tried to pass my dorm over for its regularly scheduled commissary trip (the DOC is incredibly disorganized, and prisoners’ basic needs often go unfulfilled as a result). The gang members in my dorm led the charge and quickly placed themselves between the guard on his way out of the room and the gate, refusing to budge until we were all taken to commissary. It was the first stick-up I’d seen, and it worked.

I also heard several firsthand accounts from different sources during my time inside of a sit-down for racial justice in “the Five,” or the Anna M. Kross Center, another building on the island. One of the regularly scheduled officers at the housing unit in question was apparently widely disliked for constantly berating the inmates with racist remarks. The final straw came when she took a cheap shot at an inmate of Middle Eastern descent, cracking off a comment about terrorism. The Latin Kings, who ran the cellblock, convinced everyone to pack their belongings into trash bags, sit down on the floor, and refuse to move until the higher-ups were called. They were, and the offending officer was rotated to another post. 

It’s incredibly difficult to pass information in jail; the sit-down had happened during my sentence, but I only heard about it months later, when one of the participants was transferred into my dorm. A great deal of things are communicated by yelling out the windows, but this is an imperfect method, to say the least, especially when you can’t see the other person. My dorm and the other dorm on our floor went on strike together because we could communicate through the air vents. The dorms upstairs, however, never got on board. I later learned from guys who had been housed there at the time that they would have gladly joined in, if only they had known. 

When information does spread, though, it can be powerful. When we went on strike in March 2020, we were inspired in part by reports a fellow inmate’s girlfriend had seen on Twitter that prisoners in the Hudson County Immigrant Detention Center were on hunger strike, which she then reported to him over the phone. A few days prior, another guy had spread the word that his partner had told him during a phone call that inmates were “wil’in’ out in the Five” in protest of Covid conditions, a fact I believe also contributed to our later decision to strike.  

Prisoners, according to the DOC’s inmate handbook, do not have the right to organize protests of any kind. Beyond any official sanctions, the organizers—especially those brave enough to speak out to the media using their names—can be punished with time in solitary confinement or extensions of their sentence on Rikers, as well as unofficial forms of retribution.

When a number of prisoners flat-out refused to bury the unclaimed Covid dead on nearby Hart Island without personal protective equipment, they lost their “good time” (that is, time taken off of their sentence for good behavior) and were transferred en masse for their trouble. In August 2020, prisoners’ wages were drastically slashed, and a number of those in my dorm were simultaneously assigned the difficult job of cleaning the holding pens in the bowels of the New York City courts, which entails waking up at 5am only to be shackled and driven across town six days a week. Most stuck it up, and when I left the island in October of that year, they were still striking, racking up expensive infraction tickets and living under the threat of losing good time.

Other forms of retaliation are more subtle. Searches, for example, are used as a tool to repress prisoners’ ability to organize: even if they aren’t actually looking for anything, DOC staff can arrive at any moment, strip-search you, and trash your few belongings, often confiscating a seemingly random assortment of items in the process. A transfer to another housing unit, too, can be a vicious act of retribution. Imagine someone appearing in your bedroom and ordering you to throw everything you own into a trash bag within the next ten minutes; then spending somewhere between a few hours and a few weeks in a holding cell without a bed or possibly even running water or a flushing toilet, amid a constant flow of stressed-out new arrivals and forced transferees like yourself; and finally arriving in a housing unit where you may not know anyone, and where you’ll likely be forced to take the most uncomfortable bed, or, in some cases, jumped in. 

Those of us who went on strike in March 2020 were comparatively fortunate in this regard. The DOC hierarchy had planned to transfer us all to different housing units as a way to punish us and break our momentum, but that never materialized. Many of the strikers were actually released by the DOC in the two days that followed the strike, and in the turmoil of the first wave, those of us left behind were not targeted for retaliation by the institution.

The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the men currently on Rikers could be immediately released too, and it would pose no problem to anyone. Three-quarters of the men I was locked up with were released overnight in the wake of our strike, part of an ultimate total of 1,477 people released during the first wave of the pandemic. Four months later, only 13% of those men had been rearrested. I think of those brave strikers in the building I was forced to call home not long ago, and I can only hope they are as successful. 

Sundiata Acoli turns 85 today. Help free him.

Sundiata Acoli should not be spending his 85th birthday in prison. He has been incarcerated for over 48 years, serving twice his original sentence. We ask that you participate in his Freedom Fast and sign a petition for his release. #BringSundiataHome

Sign a postcard to Governor Murphy asking him to commute Sundiata’s sentence.

Sign petition for Sundiata’s freedom

Write Sundiata:
Clark Squire (aka Sundiata Acoli) #39794-066
FCI Cumberland
P.O. Box 1000
Cumberland, MD 21501

Call-in to support political prisoner Oso Blanco at USP Victorville!

CALL OUT IN SUPPORT OF POLITICAL PRISONER OSO BLANCO & INDIGENOUS PRISONER RIGHTS AT USP VICTORVILLE, 9AM – 5PM PST

Check out freeosoblanco.org/blog/call-in-support-of-indigenous-prisoner-rights-at-usp-victorville/   for more details

January 13, 2022

Stand with Indigenous prisoners at USP Victorville! Tell BOP prison officials and staff to respect Native religious rights and practices!

On behalf of all Native and Indigenous prisoners held at USP Victorville, we call on prison officials and staff to cease and desist from violating the religious rights of Native and Indigenous prisoners being held at USP Victorville.

During the first week of December 2021, prison staff purposefully destroyed the sacred sweat lodge at USP Victorville, also removing medicine bags and other materials from Indigenous prisoners. These actions are violations of religious rights of those held at USP Victorville. Furthermore, counselor Villanueva has withheld BP-8 forms from said prisoners, not coming around the unit in order to prevent them from filing a formal complaint about these blatant religious rights violations.

According to the Bureau of Prisons website, “Chaplaincy Services Branch ensures the Constitutional religious rights of inmates.” This is obviously not the case at USP Victorville, where Chaplains Northway and Kelvington continually infringe upon the religious rights of Native and Indigenous people held at the prison. As confirmed in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), these basic rights must be respected and adhered to.

As Indigenous prisoners at USP Victorville are denied to even raise their legitimate grievances within the prison system, along with the continued denial of basic religious rights, and the destruction of their sweat lodge, we are urgently requesting emails and phone calls to BOP prison officials in order to rectify these gross violations of prisoners’ rights.

Immediate Demands:

1) Immediately provide proper materials so that the prisoners themselves can rebuild the sweat lodge destroyed by prison officials. The energy involved in the process of rebuilding has significance for Indigenous religious purposes, so the work should and must be done by them. Materials needed to rebuild the sweat lodge include willows, rocks, and untreated firewood (as it is illegal to burn treated construction wood in the State of California).

2) Ensure prison staff are properly trained on what they can and cannot do in regards to Native/Indigenous religious ceremonies

3) That prisoners be given immediate access to BP-8 forms so they can file a formal complaint.

THURSDAY, JAN. 13, 2022, SEND EMAILS AND PHONE CALLS TO THE FOLLOWING:

USP Victorville
P.O. Box 5400
Adelanto, CA  92301
General email: [email protected]
General phone: 760-530-5000


Melissa Rios, BOP Regional Director, Western Regional Office (209-956-9700; [email protected], Bureau of Prisons, Western Regional Office, 7338 Shoreline Drive, Stockton, CA 95219)


Michael Carvajal, BOP Director Washington DC Central Office (202-307-3198; [email protected], Bureau of Prisons, Central Office, 320 First Street, NW, Washington, DC 20534)

Draft email/letter:

Dear _____,

It has come to my attention that Indigenous prisoners at USP Victorville are being denied their religious rights, and that their sacred sweat lodge was demolished by prison staff. On top of these gross violations, prisoners are being prevented from accessing BP-8 forms which would allow them to file a formal complaint.

Seeing as all their modes of regress have been denied, I am asking you to please do your job and ensure that those held captive at your facility are provided the religious tools and basic rights for which they are entitled. 

According to the Bureau of Prisons website, “Chaplaincy Services Branch ensures the Constitutional religious rights of inmates.” This is obviously not the case at USP Victorville, where Chaplains Northway and Kelvington continually infringe upon the religious rights of Native and Indigenous people held at the prison. Furthermore, counselor Villanueva has withheld BP-8 forms from said prisoners, not coming around the unit in order to prevent them from filing a formal complaint about these blatant religious rights violations.

As confirmed in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), these basic rights must be respected and adhered to.

I ask you to immediately grant these three demands and enable Native prisoners held within your facility to practice their religious rights.

1) Immediately provide proper materials so that the prisoners themselves can rebuild the sweat lodge destroyed by prison officials. The energy involved in the process of rebuilding has significance for Indigenous religious purposes, so the work should and must be done by them. Materials needed to rebuild the sweat lodge include willows, rocks, and untreated firewood (as it is illegal to burn treated construction wood in the State of California).

2) Ensure prison staff are properly trained on what they can and cannot do in regards to Native/Indigenous religious ceremonies.

3) That prisoners be given immediate access to BP-8 forms so they can file a formal complaint.

Sincerely,

_____

Phone script:

Hi _____, my name is _____, and I’m calling on behalf of the Indigenous and Native prisoners held at USP Victorville. It has come to my attention that they are being denied their religious rights, and that their sacred sweat lodge was demolished by prison staff. On top of these gross violations, prisoners are also being prevented from accessing BP-8 forms which allow them to file a formal complaint.

Seeing as all their modes of regress have been denied, I am asking you to please do your job and ensure that those held captive at your facility are provided the religious tools and basic rights for which they are entitled. 

According to the Bureau of Prisons website, “Chaplaincy Services Branch ensures the Constitutional religious rights of inmates.” This is obviously not the case at USP Victorville, where Chaplains Northway and Kelvington continually infringe upon the religious rights of Native and Indigenous people held at the prison. Furthermore, counselor Villanueva has withheld BP-8 forms from said prisoners, not coming around the unit in order to prevent them from filing a formal complaint about these blatant religious rights violations.

As confirmed in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), these basic rights must be respected and adhered to.

I ask you to immediately grant these three demands and enable Native prisoners held within your facility to practice their religious rights.

1) Immediately provide proper materials so that the prisoners themselves can rebuild the sweat lodge destroyed by prison officials. The energy involved in the process of rebuilding has significance for Indigenous religious purposes, so the work should and must be done by them. Materials needed to rebuild the sweat lodge include willows, rocks, and untreated firewood (as it is illegal to burn treated construction wood in the State of California).

2) Ensure prison staff are properly trained on what they can and cannot do in regards to Native/Indigenous religious ceremonies.

3) That prisoners be given immediate access to BP-8 forms so they can file a formal complaint.

Sincerely,

Bo Brown Memorial- January 28th

Writing to let you know, if you don’t already, of Bo Brown’s passing in late October and of her upcoming virtual memorial on Friday, January 28th from 6pm to 8:30pm.

Bo passed on a Sunday morning while at home with Etang and was cremated. She died unexpectedly on October 24, 2021 of complications from dementia. Bo’s passing was sudden and quick after years of progressive impairment and brutal deterioration to her full self. Etang has had the love of friends and family in this hard time.

If you would like to attend the online celebration of Bo’s extraordinary life, please email, [email protected], to register. The private link for the gathering will be shared with folks the day of the event.

Wishing you very well,

Etang with Annie Danger, a friend of Bo’s who is helping out.

Jalil Muntaqim featured on “Millennials are Killing Capitalism” podcast

Listen to podcast here.

In this episode we once again get the opportunity to sit-down with Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army veteran Jalil Muntaqim. Muntaqim was a political prisoner of the United States for 49 years due to his involvement in the Black liberation struggle. He was released from prison in October of 2020 after eleven parole denials. He is the author of We Are Our Own Liberators, and Escaping The Prism… Fade to Black, which we discuss parts of in this episode.

This is the second conversation we’ve had with Jalil Muntaqim and if you missed the first you will want to also check that out to get more information about Jalil’s personal history and what led to the Spirit of Mandela Tribunal this past October. In this episode we caught up with Jalil on December 13th to talk about the outcomes of the Spirit of Mandela Tribunal and next steps for the conveners of this historic event. 

In this conversation Jalil Muntaqim discusses the legal outline of why the conduct of the United States of America constitutes genocide against Black and Indigenous people. Jalil talks about the relationship between white supremacy, capitalism and US imperialism. Muntaqim shares thoughts on the life of his Jericho Amnesty Movement co-founder Safiya Bukhari. We talk about recent releases of David Gilbert, Jaan Laaman, and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Maroon passed away 4 days after this episode was recorded, we send our condolences to his family, loved ones and comrades, and our own gratitude to him and his spirit for a life engaged in unrelenting struggle.

We also talk about the current struggles for freedom of several political prisoners, including Kamau SadikiLeonard PeltierVeronza BowersDr. Mutulu Shakur and Sundiata Acoli among others. We discuss Mumia Abu Jamal’s struggle for freedom after the recent passing of the 40th anniversary of his capture. And we talk about Larry Hoover and why he is recognized by the Jericho Amnesty Movement. We will include several links in the show notes to the episode on how people can get involved and support these and other political prisoners.

We also talk to Muntaqim more about Arm The Spirit the first national newspaper created and written by prisoners, which he was central to organizing. Muntaqim offers several recommendations for prisoner solidarity and prison abolition organizers. And we get Muntaqim to share a story of cadre and mass based organizing that he was involved in while inside. Jalil also shares his thoughts on resisting political imprisonment, and how to handle political imprisonment if you are incarcerated for your political activities.

A couple more final notes, we will link to ways people can stay informed and get involved in the ongoing work of the Spirit of Mandela campaign, as they look to move their findings forward into a legal case and a broader international movement. We also want to again plug the Mutual Aid Fund For Veteran Black Panther Party Members

Every month this fund brings in money and those funds are distributed to elders from the Black Panther Party, we contribute to this fund and we encourage others to do the same.

New support website for Virgin Island 3 launched

After the 1972 shooting at Fountain Valley Golf Course, dozens of native Black youth in St Croix were rounded up and tortured, resulting in statements from five young men in their early twenties. After the trial, three jurors reported coercion that led to their guilty verdict. Three of the defendants–Abdul Azeez, Hanif Bey, and Malik Bey– are held in prison almost 50 years later. Due to their advanced age, they have a variety of chronic health conditions that are difficult to manage in prison. Their legal team believes they are being unjustly held in the private prison system in the mainland United States, far away from their home and families on the islands, and that they should be granted release after so many years and so many irregularities in their arrest and prosecution.

Check out the new support site at vi3.org

Political Prisoner updates 12.28.21

Here’s the latest compilation of every other week updates:
https://nycabc.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/updates-28-dec-2021.pdf

NYC ABC, along with several other individuals and prisoner support
crews, now send hard copies to all political prisoners and prisoners of
war we support.

If you consistently mail the latest updates to a specific prisoner,
please let us know so we can insure there’s no overlap. The goal is to
have copies sent to all of the prisoners we list.

We’ve also been told that some prisoners are not receiving the copies
sent in, yet we aren’t getting rejection notices. If you are in steady
contact with a prisoner, please ask them whether or not they are
receiving the updates and let us know.

Free ’em all,
NYC ABC

New article by Daniel Baker-“It’s a “Wonderful” Prison Life

Hello friends,

I’m writing today on Christmas because I was not able to call anyone. Here at FCI Memphis in each unit there are 4 phones for 100 people. In other prisons there were 6 to 8 phones for less people. In addition to this they have been practicing a policy in which they open all of the cells but refuse to let us leave the cells until the last cell is unlocked. They they say “GO!” and laugh while they watch everyone scramble for the phones and computers. It creates the circumstances for a fight to break out. They are intentionally pitting us against each other by providing limited resources, emotional tension and then creating a stampede. They do this to turn us against each other and to instigate violent incidents so they can justify locking us down. People who become cops are lazy bullies. They don’t want to do their fair share of labor for the community, they want to get paid to sit around, sleep through the night shift and get paid overtime to do nothing. They are parasites.

Daniel Baker

Today I sat in line for several hours for one phone call and then we were locked down right before I got to the phone. After lockdown I got back in line, and when I got to the phone it did not work. Several others around me were also unable to complete calls. The call went forward as usually but right when it was supposed to ring there was a sound like someone hung up the phone repeatedly. This institute does not have the resources to provide everyone they are keeping here with the required constitutional rights and conditions. They are understaffed and undertrained. They have become complacent due to long covid lockdowns and they want to return to the indefinite lockdown. In order to do less work and get paid even more to do less they are allowing people to get hurt by holding us hostage and extorting us for phone calls. Every day we have to remind each other that this is a conscious, malicious strategy forced on us by the enemy of the common people, the police class. We are organizing ourselves to avoid conflicts, to avoid playing into their lazy, sadistic hands.

On a less bitter note I watched “It’s A Wonderful Life’ today on TV and was reminded of all the amazing solidarity I have received for the last year, and the solidarity I have experienced in Tallahassee and worldwide since I hit the road to become a full time activist in 2012. I was once again moved by the scene of this movie where the main character confronts the richest man in town for treating the working people like cattle. He asks the decadent banker if he even knows how long it takes a worker to save up $5000, and reminds him that these people wouldn’t even be able to live in a home if his abusive business practices continued. He then goes to work to undermine this rich banker and he builds a strong community through mutual aid, infrastructure, building homes and putting others before his won personal interests. The paradox here is that through building community by helping others with daily direct actions we too are taken care of. Despite the blind patriotism and mythology indulged in by this classic film, I found my Grinch heart softening.

The final scene where the community comes together to raise funds for the main character’s freedom moved me deeply. It glosses over the fact that he was about to go to jail at the hands of corrupt police, politicians and bankers. It reminds me of how my international community has come together for me, sending books, assigning me ACLU lawyers, putting money on my account and writing heartfelt letters to me and those involved in my case. It is through seemingly mundane work, often boring and time consuming labor, paperwork, farming, construction, companionship, maintenance, healthcare and education that we build strong communities. Capitalist society wants us to romanticize and glamorize violence, authority, hierarchy and selfish ambition. But these kinds of activities do not build a healthy home, much less a community. They divide us and create the illusion of independent patriots fulfiling some mythological manifest destiny of colonization. In reality we are all INTERDEPENDENT. We rely on farmers, plumbers, construction workers, healthcare workers, educators, electricians and all the other ordinary people who are our neighbors. We rely on so called foreigners, friends and family. The health of so called strangers directly effect our health.

So please continue to take good care of yourselves and each other. I send you all my heartfelt love, gratitude, strength, courage, rage and motivation! Please help your homeless neighbors and think of me while you do this. Please make daily direct actions of solidarity and courage. Stop when you see police have pulled over or arrested minorities and other neighbors. Hold them accountable and you will see your neighbors released – who otherwise would have been jailed for no reason other than there were no witnesses. Live stream these interactions from your phone and declare your presence to these cops betraying the working class. I have done this. I would not ask you to do anything unless I had already done it. Anything I can do, you can do better – you can do anything better than me! I only wish I had done more community building before I went to prison. I pledge to spend the rest of my life making up for this lost time by supporting other prisoners and reaching out to neighbors, both the housed and the unhoused. Together we will make a better world, because we have to in order to survive. We are responsible for every person who dies in prison and on the streets from exposure and preventable violence and diseases. Murray Bookchin says we must be practical by doing the impossible. We will create a world where everyone has food, shelter, healthcare and community. One day we will look back on this era as the age of corrupt police, illegal imprisonment, neo-slavery, wage slavery and we will shame the oppressors. Help me by taking responsibility for each other and the social problems you see in your daily life. Thank you for being there for me.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Don’t let the bastards grind you down!
Dan aka Alishare

Daniel Baker 25765-509
FCI Memphis
PO Box 34550
Memphis, TN 38184