Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun develops a plan to attack the economic basis of unpaid prison labo[u]r, and connects it with the history of economic direct action campaigns like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Bay View.
While the Montgomery (Ala.) Bus Boycott is the most well-known of the economic direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, in actuality, these boycott campaigns were far more widespread throughout the country during the Jim Crow era, especially in the South in places like Mississippi and Tennessee. In 1963, following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the white terrorist group Ku Klux Klan, Dr. King called for a Boycott of Christmas Holiday to affect the economics of American capitalism as punishment for government inaction in the face of a violent opposition to Black civil and human rights.
By late 1967 and early 1968 just prior to his assassination, Dr. King had become even more engrossed in supporting the use of direct economic action campaigns to gain more rights for Black people. As we all know, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., while making appearances to support striking sanitation workers. A lesser known fact is that also during this time, Dr. King was working to build a Poor People’s Movement and planning a return to Washington, D.C., to demand compensation for the exploitation of Black labor.
Dr. King stated that he was returning to D.C. to “cash the cheque” that America owed Black people and that his new movement philosophy would use boycotts and other economic direct action campaigns to “redistribute the pain” to those who were oppressing Blacks for economic gain.
At the time all of this was going on, people in prison all across the nation were organized and participating in efforts to win civil and human rights. Elder Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin was among a group of former Panthers and other revolutionaries in federal prison who were engaged in boycotts, work strikes, property destruction and straight-up ass kicking against prison authorities whose ranks were filled with KKK and other racists.
Meanwhile Elders Richard “Mafundi” Lake, George Dobbins, Bro. Gamble and many others were organized under Inmates for Action and fighting back against an all-white corrections force that was known for murder and pick-axe killings of the incarcerated. The revolutionary group IFA’s legacy remains strong at its birthplace, Holman Correctional Facility, and multiple prisons were renamed in testament to the fact that IFA’s declaration in their manifesto, that they believed in “an eye for an eye” if one of theirs was killed, was not empty rhetoric.
The foundation of our current movement stands on the shoulders of many great men who sacrificed before us. As early as 1971, Folsom and Attica put out manifestos calling for boycotts and work strikes as fundamental components of our inside struggle. Our struggle from the inside has always been led from the inside.
Back then though, unlike today, we lacked the ability to communicate directly with each other on a national level and plan together in the ways that we can (and do) today across the many social media platforms etc. that technology now allows. Of course, we won’t always have this ability, but life is only experienced and lived in the NOW – and right now we need to seize the moment that opportunity and technology has provided to us.
As I am always known to say, the only true source of power that we have behind these walls is our labor. We must organize this labor – not as a negotiating tool for wages but as a tool for freedom.
Billions of dollars, thousands of companies and all 51 states are dependent upon our labor EVERY DAY! There are literally entire industries that would be put out of business overnight if we stopped working.
Our families’ power, which is also tremendous, derives from the billions in financial transactions that they conduct in our behalf each year. Those canteen, phone, shoe and incentive package companies only have one customer: us. Those billions of dollars go right back into state General Fund accounts, which are then re-used for prison budgets. We … are the ones paying for all of this shit.
The major prison movements of the past hardly ever received support from anyone. Not MLK, Malcolm X, NOI or the NAACPs of the world. There may have been individual support, but never to the mass construct. Then, as now, we have to be the ones who are organized for change, and this organizing MUST be rooted in economics if we are going to force the issue.
I started writing this series and planning this Campaign to Redistribute the Pain with the intention of getting everyone’s understanding up on the importance and power of economics to our struggle. We can’t march and protest our way to freedom. Instead, we have to bankrupt the corporate enterprise that was created by the 13th Amendment by using bankruptcy attorney downey ca to help us out.
I don’t make this statement lightly: The approximately 3 million people in U.S. prisons are or represent the most powerful group of labor in this country. Why? How?
First, there are 3 million of us. Name another single company that has 3 million employees. Google? No. Apple? No. Microsoft? No. I don’t even think that the U.S. military has 3 million soldiers.
Then, what other company makes so many different types of products and provides so many different services? We run agri-farms, fisheries, textile plants, tags, firefighters, ranchers, furniture, clothes, recycling, mining, kitchens, laundries and so much more. Name any other one company that is involved in that many different industries.
Also, name another group of 3 million people whose labor and entire lives are controlled by a single law, the 13th Amendment. Finally, take account of all of the labor that is compelled by the 13th Amendment nationwide, add to that what we spend with our captors, and you see that we are in direct control of over $100 billion annually. There are many international corporations that don’t produce $100 billion each year, yet we produce that from behind prison walls each year.
The firefighter program in California is a billion-dollar service that we provide. JPay transacted $1 billion for us in 2016. I promise you that there is at least $98 billion more out there from us. The scope of our power is immense.
Recently, Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, stated that the only way that NFL players would get the type of salaries that NBA players receive would be if they went on strike. A radio host commented that he doubted that such a move would work long-term because owners are billionaires and players are millionaires.
He said players lived extravagant lifestyles, didn’t save and, therefore, couldn’t hold out long enough to make the owners cave. Again, because we are in prison, this works to our advantage as well. How?
NFL players have to buy groceries, pay property taxes, buy gas, pay utility bills, and have other ordinary expenses each month. For those of us in prisons, we don’t have these problems. The state has to pay our bills no matter what. The prison system currently pays those bills off of our labor and the money we spend with them.
Leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were targeted, just as leaders of the Free Alabama Movement and the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain have been and will continue to be targeted. But, like the leaders of the boycott in 1956 and of the California mass hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, they are focused on victory and will not be deterred.
If NFL players strike for, say, 18 months and one can’t pay his bills after 10 months, his services get disconnected and he gets evicted. What do you think would happen if 3 million people all woke up one morning and told their boss, “We ain’t working no more and we ain’t spending no more.”
A slave plantation only works one way, and a slave has no value aside from his or her labor. We have all seen the same slave movies. We ain’t never seen one where a slave master bought 50 slaves, put them all up in a cabin, and just fed and clothed them for years with nothing required in return. That labor is essential.
Many of us have fallen for the deception out there that the U.S. taxpayer spends approximately $80 billion annually in prison budgets nationwide. One has to be a real fool (I used to be) to fall for this word play.
Taxpayers ain’t paying shit. Prison labor produces products and provides services, in addition to the money we spend; all of the money that is collected is deposited into whatever state fund is used for prison budgets. Work-release deductions and all of that goes into this fund too. Profits are then used to fund other state agencies etc. In business, this is called return on investment (ROI).
These are capitalists that we are talking about. They spend money to make more money. You can best believe that that $80 billion is accumulated profits.
We keep calling it slavery. Well, we have to define slavery as an economic enterprise designed to make money. That $80 billion is being spent to make a profit. There is a return on investment. If there was no return, we wouldn’t have so many investors, this is why people who invest on Acorns tend to come back for more all the time. Drug dealers don’t spend $17,500 a key to make $15,000. Instead, he spends $17,500 to make $25,000. Return … on … investment.
A civil war was fought and concluded in a compromise called the 13th Amendment, which allowed slavery to be managed by each state’s prison department. They are now investing $80 billion on that venture and our labor and contributions are producing a return that they continue to like.
In Part II of this series I showed where Parchman Prison reported a profit less than one year after it was built. In 1878, just 13 years after the 13th Amendment was ratified, the state of Alabama generated 73 percent of its total statewide operating budget from prison labor.
Let that sink in for a second … What that means, in effect, is that prison labor was the government. The courts, schools, judges, governor etc. all depended on convict leasing for their salaries, with the remaining 27 percent presumably coming from taxes, fees etc.
But it’s safe to say that the prisons paid for themselves, with the surplus going towards funding the rest of the government. Do you think that these people would alter an industry this lucrative, especially when that is exactly what it was created for in the first place?
Alabama’s current prison budget is somewhere around $400 million. The state’s total budget is around $3 billion. (I don’t have up-to-date figures at the moment.) So, how is this $400 million being generated, and what percentage of the approximately $3 billion coming from prison labor? Let’s take a look …
Work release deductions
Court costs and restitution
ACI (Alabama Corrections Industries)
Canteen, snack line, incentive packages
Visitation vending and picture tickets
Money sending services
In-house labor (kitchen, laundry, maintenance, etc.)
Work camps, road squads, city-county labor
1) Work releases: Recently, Alabama Sen. Cam Ward pushed through a so-called “prison reform” bill in 2014-15, SB67. Embedded within this bill was a provision that increased the amount that the ADOC can deduct from an individual’s cheque to 60 percent. The math on this speaks for itself. We work; they get paid 60 percent of what we earn. Freedom ain’t free.
2) Court costs and restitution: Most of this is money taken directly from the funds that our family members try to send us. The courthouse has to have lights, too, so that when we are brought in for the slaughter we can watch our step on our way out.
3) ACI: Every state and the federal government has one. This is the golden goose and cash cow of the entire slave plantation enterprise. All of the national and multinational corporations have built every conceivable factory known to capitalism inside of a prison.
The few tax dollars that are spent in prison are those that these corporations conspire with government officials and politicians used to build their factories so they can use the new Smart Measurement tools for the best results in their factories. The taxpayer is told that they are building a new prison, but the blueprints reveal that most of the space is for industry. This is the sector that is the most lucrative of them all … and this is where we will ultimately have to go to seriously redistribute the pain.
4) Canteen, snack line, incentive packages: These ventures sell stale products, for usurious and jacked-up prices, to a captive group of customers who have no other option. The company that runs the incentive packages function in almost every state, so a coordinated Campaign to Redistribute the Pain could put these thieves out of business. They are a kick-back company, meaning they pay a percentage of sales back to each prison department for the exclusive contract. Their prices are criminal. The canteens are controlled by the prisons and they use these profits to purchase things like mace, batons and handcuffs. We pay for our own ass whoopings.
5) Phone call (collect): The best campaign on challenging this industry was waged by the people who run Prison Legal News. The curious thing about their campaign, though, is that they never called for or attempted to organize a phone boycott. I mean, damn, at some point we have to sacrifice to get our point across. Wreak havoc on their bottom line for a while and MFs start listening to you.
What the phone companies are doing so closely parallels what the bus companies were doing in Montgomery, Alabama, in the Jim Crow era that the solution should resemble the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Ms. Roberta Franklin showed us this over a decade ago when she organized a 30-day phone boycott here in Alabama. Instead of trying to reduce costs for a call, let’s put them out of business.
6) Medical co-pay: These companies already get contracts to provide the service. Where is the co-pay money coming from? Our families. Where is the money going? Investors. They are getting our money in every way imaginable.
7) Visitation vending and picture tickets: When you boycott a business, you have to boycott all of its venues. Ain’t no better way to send a message that we are ready to go home than to give up all privileges, including visits.
8) Money transfer companies: Prison Legal News reported in 2016 that money transfer company JPay reported transfers totaling $1,000,000,000 (billion) in 2015, with net profits of $50,000,000 (million). This is on less than 30 states. Do we really need our families sending $1 billion to us in prison to spend on phone, canteen and BS?
What about that $50 million profit that JPay makes just to send an email (smh). If we include city and county jails, plus all 51 states, we are probably talking $4-5 billion. That’s a lot of pain we can redistribute. I bet they start talking with more respect to our families when we show our collective economic power. We have to organize this power and put it into action.
9) In-house labor: Next to the corrections industries programs, in-house labor is the No. 2 industry in the prison slavery enterprise. Unlike the corrections industries, which generate revenue, the in-house labor provides services that save the states billions of dollars in costs while guaranteeing that the plantation runs like a sewing machine.
The kitchens prepare the food that keeps the slaves fed. Maintenance keeps the engines running, doors rolling etc. Yard crews keep the place clean and garbage crews keep the health department away. The mops and brooms help pass inspection. If we don’t do this work – for free no less – then the prisons have to pay free-world janitors, cooks, lawn care companies, electricians etc. to do these jobs.
Just one kitchen at a 1,300-man prison utilizes approximately $1 million worth of labor each year just to operate. Alabama has 17 prisons, not including work camps, work releases and pre-release centers. Laundry workers, runners, on and on. These places just aren’t economically sustainable without us. We are doing this to ourselves.
States are not like the federal government in that they can’t acquire debt. States have fixed budgets, so they can’t just borrow money. The only way that they can create new sources of income is to raise taxes, and that will never happen to fund prisons because the slaves ain’t working.
The damage from a strike or boycott begins on day one. Because when officers immediately go to overtime to start cooking and cleaning, as they eat through that year’s fixed budget, the next year’s budget is being impacted by the lack of money being made in the corrections industries. The longer we strike or boycott, the worse their problems are. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days.
10) Work camps, road squads, city-county labor: Someone has to pick up trash off of the side of the road. Sanitation departments can lay off workers who make $40,000 and replace them with prison labor. Trustee camps in Alabama work everywhere: State Trooper’s office, Health Department, Forestry Commission, police station cleanup, city and county street departments, state house. A lot of bodies moving for free. All of this work still has to be done. The question is, how much longer will we do it for free?
We are our own worst enemy in this situation. By Dec. 6, we should have completed enough research so that we can create flyers, newsletters, conference calls etc. to start preparing for Phase 1 of the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain 2018, beginning with a nationwide, coordinated boycott – not work strikes – of all prison canteens, phones, visitation vending, incentive packages, on a bi-monthly basis for the entire year of 2018.
A stroke is called the “silent killer.” Well, economic boycotts are silent killers too. Our family members feel hopeless in their ability to help us. We have to show them that they have power too.
On the inside, these are sacrifices that we have to make if we intend to advance our struggle. When we cut off the money and stop investing in the system, there is no return on investment. This Campaign to Redistribute the Pain is designed to build collective unity amongst our families in a way that will highlight their economic strength while at the same time inflicting intense pain on those who seek to profit off of our misery.
Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, Free Alabama Movement
Remember: Boycott months are February, April, June, August, October and December 2018.
Send our brother some love and light: Melvin Ray, 163343, Limestone CF D-70, 28779 Nick Davis Rd., Harvest AL 35749.