Inmates imprisoned across nearly half the United States are planning to go on strike today, the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising. Some will stop work, others will start hunger strikes, all in the name of rallying against the injustices of prison labor, which strike organizers compare to modern slavery. If they pull it off, it could be the biggest prison strike in US history, potentially involving thousands of prisoners in dozens of state and federal facilities.
How is such a coordinated movement possible? The answer, it turns out, is tech. Sure, they’ve written letters and connected via landline, both acceptable forms of communication under prison rules. But it’s the tech forbidden to inmates that they’ve nevertheless managed to use to truly amplify their message. Today, prisoners plan to take to Facebook and Twitter to protest and share their stories, and the question is: will prisons request those accounts be taken down? As with protests over police violence, social media may well find itself at the center of the conflict between the criminal justice system and those protesting its abuses. Except this time, the protesters are behind bars.
Of the United States’ some 2.4 million prisoners, about 900,000 work. A lot of that work is for the prison itself or for the public sector, but corporations—Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T—contract work out to prisons, too. The estimated annual dollar value of their output runs in the billions, while prisoner laborers make just cents per hour.
“We want to people to understand the economics of the prison system,” says Melvin Brooks-Ray, an inmate for 17 years and a founder of the Free Alabama Movement, one of the strike’s primary organizers. “It’s not about crime and punishment. It’s about money.”
Strike organizers don’t see this as a concern for inmates alone—they’re quick to point out that relying on cheap prison labor takes jobs away from those outside—but so far response from outside organizations like labor unions has been tepid. So inmates and the activists who support them have sought to arouse outrage in other ways, like strikes.
The basic problem with organizing a prison strike from inside prison? Yeah, it’s not allowed.
Phillip Ruiz, a former inmate who works with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, spent nine out of ten years of his sentence in solitary confinement as punishment for repeatedly organizing work stoppages, hunger strikes, and sit-downs strikes while incarcerated. Organizing a strike beyond an individual prison’s walls adds another layer of difficulty. “Unless it’s to an attorney, outside communications like letters and phone calls can be read, reviewed, or supervised,” says Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. That can seriously hinder an inmate’s ability to organize.
But modern technology has afforded them new, more private avenues for communication. Visitors and prison guards smuggle in cell phones, a brisk trade that prison authorities are constantly working on trying to stop or at least discourage by deadening phone signals. But those efforts haven’t worked. “Contraband cellphones make it into facilities all the time,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation investigative researcher Dave Maass.
But the more surprising addition to the mix is social media. Many prisons do not provide inmates computer or Internet access in the first place. Many of those that do (and more than a few that don’t) have strict policies forbidding prisoners from maintaining an active social media presence—though few have made it into law. But prisoners still do. Most commonly, someone on the outside, such as a family member, will post on their behalf. Services also exist that will post to an inmate’s Facebook or Twitter page for a monthly fee. Less common, but most striking, are inmates with social media presences they maintain directly.
The avatars of this phenomenon are the men behind Brooks-Ray’s organization, FAM. They have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and even a YouTube channel that hosts videos of inmate testimonials and evidence of poor prison conditions (like moldy hamburgers). “Our social media platform thrusts us out there in ways we didn’t even imagine,” says Brooks-Ray. “With access to the Internet, we had enough information to build relationships, connect people, start a movement, and reach out to the world. I’ve got more journalists’ phone numbers than regular people’s.” (In fact, Brooks-Ray himself reached out to WIRED after hearing about this story through the prison-Facebook grapevine.)
Of course, if the average citizen can access these accounts, prison authorities can, too. If authorities find accounts for their prisoners online, they can go straight to the tech companies and ask for them to be removed by submitting a request form. Some corrections systems run patsy accounts that trawl for inmates’ profiles, but that’s not a universal approach. “Typically the accounts are reported to us by members of the public,” says Jeremy Barclay, communications director for the Washington Department of Corrections. “Victims are often the most diligent trackers of inmate activity.”
But just pointing out the existence of an inmate’s social media account usually isn’t enough to warrant its removal. Facebook is a private company. It can remove or not remove accounts as it pleases. But after facing criticism for undue censorship (which continues to this day), Facebook has become a bit more lenient when it comes to prisons: in the last six months of 2015, the social media platform took down 53 US inmates’ accounts and 74 inmate accounts in the UK. The reasoning? According to a Facebook spokesperson, disabling inmate accounts can happen a few different ways. Facebook will disable accounts when prisons prove that they have the authority make that call, which only applies in places like Alabama, which has a law specifically forbidding inmate access to social media. Otherwise, the prison authorities have to prove to Facebook that the account violates their community standards: it’s run by a third party, it’s being used for criminal activity or making threats of bodily harm, or it presents a security risk.
It’s the last one that’s likely to be the stumbling block for would-be strikers. “The way prisons can get the content taken down is by demonstrating that the accounts are a security threat,” says Maass. “Prisons classify work stoppages and hunger strikes similarly to riots. The question becomes what does Facebook think a work stoppage entails?”
To be clear, there are real reasons you might not want prisoners in constant, unfettered communication with the outside world. There are plenty of horror stories about prisoners continuing to organize criminal activity, harass victims, or even order hits on corrections officers while incarcerated. But whether organizing (and publicizing) a peaceful protest counts as a threat is up for debate. Facebook declined to comment on whether it knew about today’s strike, or give any indication of how it would respond to this event specifically.
On the outside, organizers have planned marches and sit-ins everywhere from Durham, North Carolina, to Portland to Oakland to Chicago, today and this weekend. Supporters will be hashtagging updates and social media displays of solidarity with #endprisonslavery. Those closest to the movement see Internet response as vital, and prisons going silent (well, even more silent) as an enormous threat to the inmates. “The Internet is absolutely a safety net,” says Azzurra Crispina, media co-chair for IWOC. “The only security we’re able to provide for prisoners who are striking is to be able to get outside support from as many people as humanly possible.”
Whether they succeed or fail in achieving their aims, inmates have figured out ways to get around the system to communicate. “Communication is the carrot they hold in front of us,” says Ruiz. The constant connectivity of the digital age—through social media, no less—even works for people who aren’t allowed online.
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