by Katrina Thomas, ACLU of Nebraska Smart Justice Community Organizer
We are not rioting, we are being respectful in trying to have our voices heard and call for a correctional overhaul.
On August 21, incarcerated individuals across the country launched a nationwide strike with 10 demands for improved living conditions, greater access to resources and the end of "modern-day slavery.” The national demands of the men and women in federal, immigration, and state prisons are:
Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
Pell grants must be reinstated in all U.S. states and territories.
The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!
ACLU national is supporting the effort because it aligns with advancing smart justice reforms. As the ACLU of Nebraska’s new Smart Justice Community Organizer, I wanted to weigh in with a local perspective through my lens of education and lived experiences to raise awareness of correctional reforms. My specialization is female incarceration and reintegration. Being formerly incarcerated in prison, I know and feel the plight of this strike. The following are a couple of the issues raised by the strike that really resonate with me.
Demand #2: End to ‘modern day’ prison slavery
Prisoners do not make enough money to provide for anyone, nor do their vocational skills always translate. In California, for example, nearly 2,000 inmates have volunteered to fight fires this summer for $1 an hour, USA Today reports, but they can't do this work for higher pay once they are out of prison. Most California counties require firefighters to obtain an emergency medical technician license, which some agencies deny to people with a criminal history.
When I was in prison, I made a $1.25 a day—not even hourly—for eight hours of work. These horrendously low wages made it nearly impossible for women in prison to afford phone calls to their children and other family members. When I was incarcerated, the cost of menstrual products were expensive and also cut into these modest earnings. Thankfully, the Department of Corrections and the State Legislature are starting to reform the cost of phone calls and access to menstrual products in correctional facilities, but more work to ensure equity remains.
Demand #8: More rehabilitative services
Our neighbors who are incarcerated are asking for greater access to resources and more programming so they can be successful when they return to our communities. It is important to remember that re-entry success benefits everyone because about 95% of state prisoners will be released from prison at some point.
Studies have shown that recidivism can be reduced with programming. Resources need to be allocated within institutional correctional programs for comprehensive, integrated services that focus on economic, social, and treatment needs. Vocational training, education, and skill-enhancing opportunities need to be provided to assist individuals in earning a living wage when they get out. Those returning to their communities from correctional facilities often must comply with a variety of parole requirements while trying to achieve financial stability, access health care, reunify with their families, etc. They must find employment often with few skills and a sporadic work history, find safe and drug-free housing, and in many cases, maintain recovery from addiction.
Prior to incarceration, a snapshot of my life was a reflection common among female prisoners: a victim of childhood abuse and domestic violence with a continuation of abusive adulthood relationships, thereby masking the emotional and mental torment through drugs and alcohol. While incarcerated, there was no offer of life-skills programming or trauma rehabilitative services. Simply put, it was work and follow the rules; that’s how I did my time. I have lived with the collateral consequences of my felony conviction for several years and understand how difficult and challenging reintegration can be. For me, successful reintegration was possible with help from family, friends, community members and resources, therapy, treatment, and medication. I was fortunate to have this help, yet all too many do not have this assistance when re-entering and have not been given the chance to rehabilitate while incarcerated.
So where are we at on increasing and improving programs and services in Nebraska’s overcrowded prison system?
We know from our research on incarcerated women and girls in Nebraska that far too many of our neighbors are still waiting for access to basic behavioral health and other services.
We know from working with the Legislature to get better data on what’s happening behind prison walls in Nebraska that today hundreds of incarcerated Nebraskans are on waiting list to access basic programs and services and far too many continue to “jam out” without their basic needs being met and without the tools they need to be successful during re-entry.
We know that by working together we can do better. The national prison strike gives us an opportunity to center the voices of those most impacted by these policy failures and continue our dialogue about these important issues. Join the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice today and join the movement.