Interview by Spanish Trade Union

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This is the English translation of an interview of Melvin Ray of Free Alabama Movement and Cole Dorsey of Oakland IWOC. It was originally printed before the strike began, in Solidaridad Obrera, a publication of the CNT, a radical Spanish trade union. Founded in 1910, the CNT participated in the Spanish Civil War against the fascists from 1936-39. The interview was originally printed here in Catalan, the language of northeastern Spain: http://lasoli.cnt.cat/09/09/2016/eua-entendre-vaga-presos-9-setembre-entrevista-melvin-ray-colle-dorsey-free-alabama-movement-iww

UNDERSTAND THE SEPTEMBER 9 PRISON STRIKE. INTERVIEW WITH MELVIN RAY OF THE FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT AND COLE DORSEY OF THE IWW AND OAKLAND IWOC

Bennu Hannibal Sun-Ra (Melvin Ray), from Holman prison in Alabama, is a co-founder and representative of the Free Alabama Movement.

Cole Dorsey spent three years in prison in Michigan, and joined the IWW a month after his release in 2004. He is currently part of Oakland IWOC and the Bay Area IWW.

ROCA BELTRAN

What can you tell us about the background to this strike?

COLE DORSEY

From my experience in prison, collective action is usually taken for a variety of reasons: the quality of food, access to recreation, access to commissary…. It is nothing new that prisoners have organized and try to change things from within. What’s new is that now we are building a solid network of people outside to support, publicize, and amplify these collective actions that prisoners are doing.

There has been a resurgence of activity in recent years. From the prison strike Georgia in 2010 to the hunger strikes of prisoners in California, prisoners are taking more and more actions to deal with their conditions.

The Free Alabama Movement (FAM) started in 2014. That year there was an uprising at Holman Prison in Alabama. In this struggle, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began working with Melvin Ray and FAM to support them. At this time the IWW also contacted Texas prisoners who claimed they wanted to organize. All this culminated in the creation of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) by IWW members.

September 9 is a significant date because this year marks the 45th anniversary of that day’s Attica riot. The prisoners have called for action on 9 September to end slavery in prison, “refusing to be slaves anymore.”

MELVIN RAY

For us in the Free Alabama Movement these protests are following three years of existence and participation in protests and awareness about slavery and mass incarceration. Our first protest in January 2014 at Holman Prison, was the starting point of the movement. In 2015 after a successful new round of protests, we began to develop the concept and to call a national protest in a document called the Six Step Plan of Action 2015. After that, we began the process of organization. Today that day has arrived.

ROCA BELTRAN

Can you explain how corporations are  connected with the management of prisons and the criminal justice system of the United States?

COLE DORSEY

Companies have learned they can get huge profits from slavery in prison. Before, outsourcing the work to China, India, and Mexico gave them the benefit of paying low wages in these countries. These same companies are now “outsourcing” these jobs within the country through the prisons. Since prisoners are considered “custody” of the state, companies do not have to pay insurance or taxes, or worry if a worker has an accident. All labor issues are managed by the prison administration. Refusing to work may result in a longer sentence, solitary confinement and other restrictions. Companies have a skilled workforce which they only have to pay pennies per hour within their own  country.

The prison industrial complex generates billions of dollars. It is a lucrative business that has grown with private prisons. Although the Department of Justice recently announced it is closing private prisons, this will only affect about 10 federal prisons. There are still private prisons at state level, plus all these inmates will simply be transferred to other centers.

With the industrialization of this country, the response of states to control people has been the mass imprisonment which disproportionately affects people of color. Having a huge mass of workers that are barely paid, there is the threat that the bulk of American workers could lose if they are not compliant, with their employment outsourced to the prison population.

Although statistically crime rates have declined over the years, the number of prisoners has skyrocketed. 80% of black men have been in the system of “justice” US sometime. The police indiscriminately killing black people, the school to prison pipeline, and slavery in prison, perpetuate white supremacy in the US.

MELVIN RAY

Corporations run the prison industrial complex. There are more businessmen involved in politics than ever. Prisons represent savings in operating costs for companies because normal expenses such as taxes, social security … there is no overtime when the work is done by inmates.

Companies finance PACs (Political Action Committees created to raise funds to support candidates in political elections), then pressure politicians to their advantage to pass laws that allow them to access prison labor. Sometimes there are even companies that buy or build prisons directly. But for this investment to work, the company must guarantee that the work is available in the long term. Therefore, politicians tend to pass laws such as “mandatory minimums”, “three strikes” and all kinds of sentences for drug possession. The result is that there is a mass imprisonment in the US, with deplorable conditions and abuses … and profits remain very high.

ROCA BELTRAN

Why speak of modern slavery?

COLE DORSEY

Slavery never ended in this country. This is one of the key messages we want to give the average citizen through our movement. It is written in our constitution. The thirteenth amendment “abolished” slavery “except as a punishment for a crime.

MELVIN RAY

From my point of view the term “modern slavery” is wrong, because slavery never ended. There is nowhere in the US Constitution that says it’s done. In fact, many prisons such as Angola in Louisiana were built on old plantations. The plantation became a prison. The slave became convict. The owner became jailer. I simply followed the money circulating at the expense of black people. In our article “Let the Crops Rot In The Field,” I cite research showing that in the mid-1870s Alabama received around 70% of its state budget from convict slave labor. Most state governments still balance their budgets with labor decisions, fines, and legal exploitation through phones, commissary, incentives … even charging a medical co-payment. But keep in mind that all these costs are borne by people working for free. This is how slavery has always worked.

ROCA BELTRAN

What are the objectives of the strike? What effect do you think it will have?

MELVIN RAY

The main objective is to raise awareness about the deception and what is happening, and show that there is a real and viable solution to the problem of mass incarceration. I demonstrated the ability to solve this problem is in our hands, literally, through the work we do as prisoners. Not lawyers, or politicians, or the President; an organization that is not only us who we are inside. All you have to do is let the crops rot in the ground. Let the factories remain idle. Let the products of the cafeteria rot.

COLE DORSEY

When you remove the economic motivation and improve the conditions of workers in the prison system, all the judicial and police structures for control and capture of prisoners must change and treat us like human beings, rather than as slaves.

Initially, I think the state repression will be very hard against the prisoners on strike. I have no doubt they will be placed in isolation or segregation, and their belongings will be confiscated and their few rights will be restricted indefinitely. So we think it’s important to create a strong network of support from outside, so that we can mobilize and help them against repression. But the long-term hope is to open a national discussion about the fact that slavery must end. The companies and the state are making a lot of money putting people in prison, and mass imprisonment has been used as a means of social control and to perpetuate white supremacy. I see our efforts inside and outside prison leading to a mass-movement to end slavery and white supremacy…. And a general strike to end the capitalist system that sustains it.

ROCA BELTRAN

What organizations are supporting the strike?

COLE DORSEY

The prisoners are those who call the strike. IWOC is fully in support, informing its imprisoned members and trying to promote the strike all possible ways. The National Lawyers Guild has decided to support each prisoner who suffers reprisals for participating in the strike.

IWOC has created a hotline which prisoners can call 24 hours: 816-866-3808.

This link lists groups that have supported the strike: https: //supportprisonerresistance.noblogs.org/endorsements/

ROCA BELTRAN

What is the relationship between the IWW and IWOC? How many members has IWOC?

COLE DORSEY

IWOC was created by members of the IWW. IWOC is a link for prisoners organizing themselves to build solid bridges among themselves and with outside workers. There is a national IWOC committee and a dozen local groups. There are about 800 prisoners and IWW members who are also part of IWOC throughout the country.

MELVIN RAY

IWOC was created to work with FAM because we had many differences with purely union organizations that focus exclusively on wages and working conditions. We in the FAM could not even ask how prisoners are treated like slaves to organize employees. A slave on a plantation cannot pay union dues. For us, especially for the Black masses, this is part of our 460 years of struggle for freedom from slavery in America.

ROCA BELTRAN

What is the attitude towards prisoners on strike? Is there a lot of tension in the prisons? How have the authorities responded so far?

MELVIN RAY

No one has seen or experienced anything like this, so there is a wide range of feelings. There is tension, but there is always tension in the prison. Authorities are responding as their owners say to respond to a threat to a multimillion dollar business: repression without worrying about the consequences. Remember, judges and prosecutors are all in the same boat.

COLE DORSEY

For example, Sidique Hasan of Lucasville and member of the Free Ohio Movement has been visited by the FBI and has been put in solitary confinement for being spokesman of the movement.

ROCA BELTRAN

What actions are called for September 9?

COLE DORSEY

There are planned actions in prisons and against companies that benefit from slave labor in about 50 cities. Many cities are planning to view of films and hold public debates on that date and afterwards. Other actions will include noise demonstrations outside prisons throughout the country, to let the prisoners know they are not alone in their struggle. At the following link there is more information about these actions: https: //itsgoingdown.org/spreading-strike-solidarity-actions-across-north-america-september-9th/

ROCA BELTRAN

How can we support this fight from abroad?

MELVIN RAY

Continue posting and reporting. Ask people to support the protests in the prisons. Investigate and identify companies that use inmate labor, such as McDonald’s, protest their establishments and to boycott them. And, most importantly, help us inside. Help increase the movement. You can make donations to the Free Movement PayPal at famfamalabama@gmail.com

COLE DORSEY

The statements of solidarity help. These have been received from prisoners in Greece, Bulgaria and Mexico. We ask people not to buy products from companies that profit from prison slavery. We would like to see prisoners organized globally as part of “one big union” that uses the strike as a weapon to fight against austerity and white supremacy. IWOC has representation in England and hopefully more unions, prisoners, and other people involved in supporting prisoners and their collective actions worldwide.

An injury to one is an injury to all!

 

 

 

AUTHOR

 

Beltran Roca is a professor of Sociology at the University of Cadiz. Among his research interests are trade unions, social movements and the “third sector.” He has been affiliated with the CNT for almost 20 years and currently works as an advisor to the Sindicat d’Oficis Varis of the Port of Santa María.

 

Solidaridad Obrera is published by CNT Catalonia and the Balearic Islands.

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