Karapatan’s Solidarity Message to the US National Prison Strikers

Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights - Philippines stands in solidarity with the prison strikers who are currently staging a nineteen-day peaceful protest across the US, as we express our concern over the grave human rights violations occurring in US prisons that are driving these incarcerated men and women to mobilize and assert their rights. 

Inmates in prisons of at least seventeen states so far are participating in protests through hunger strikes, sit-ins and work stoppage; many face penalties such as solitary confinement and other forms of penal retaliation. 

According to Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a nationwide collective that is supporting the strike, inmates in various US prisons are being treated as “animals” and that conditions in prisons are the causes of “physical harm and death that could be avoided.” 

According to reports, strikers are mostly protesting the modern-day slavery that plagues prisons all over the US. Inmates are hardly compensated for hard labour, which is often compulsory. Some earn as little as US 4 cents an hour, while others do not earn anything. Because of the low wages, inmates cannot afford phone calls to relatives or basic commodities such as toothpaste and deodorant, according to experts. Though the US constitution prohibits slavery, it excludes involuntary servitude by prisoners as a form of punishment for their crimes. This horrendous fact gives way to widespread exploitation of inmates.  

Prisoners suffer from bad conditions, such as overcrowded and understaffed prisons, which often lead to tensions and sometimes even riots. For example, in April this year, a riot took place in the Lee correctional institution in South Carolina that led to the death of seven prisoners. Moreover, in an article published by the New York Times, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, Paul Wright, states that “the prisoners see people dying around them. They see the financial exploitation. They see the injustice.”

Thus, the prison strikers’ demands are indeed legitimate. These includes the immediate improvement to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women; an immediate end to prison slavery and that 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 rescinding of laws or policies that hinder the rehabilitation of imprisoned persons and the availability of proper channels to address their grievances and violations of their rights; an end to racist policies against imprisoned individuals; reinstatement of a program for free college grants for prisoners and for the government to uphold the voting rights all prisoners.

Detainees in the Philippines face similar forms of inhumane treatment and grave conditions in jails. In the 2017 report of the Philippine Commission on Audit, it stated that the occupancy rate in prison facilities in the country has reached 612%, with total jail population of 146,302 inmates. Current detention facilities have 20,653 capacity. The said overcrowding was mainly attributed to the number of drug-related cases as well as the Philippine courts’ slow action or inaction on the pending cases.

The COA also reported that there is an increase in the inmates catching illnesses in the past three years, with 57,269 cases of upper respiratory tract infection in 2017, around 15,000 more than what was recorded in 2016, and an increasing number of inmates having hypertension and abscess in the past 3 years.

These conditions violate the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. 

Aside from these conditions, political prisoners in the Philippines, which are at 503 as of June 2018, experience continuing injustice and political persecution as face numerous trumped up charges, mainly filed by soldiers and police, to justify their illegal or arbitrary arrest and detention. Like US political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, hearings on cases of Filipino political prisoners are being dragged for years, more repressive and arbitrary policies are being imposed against them, as they are wrongfully portrayed by government as “criminals” or “terrorists” as part of the US-inspired and -directed counter-insurgency program in the Philippines.

Thus, with these parallelisms in our contexts, Karapatan supports the struggles and demands of the prison strikers in the US against an oppressive system that puts freedom fighters, ordinary and poor individuals in jail, while the real plunderers and murderers in government and in big corporations are scot-free from accountability. We salute and extend our solidarity to all prison strikers, including US political prisoners, who are challenging and resisting the oppressive system, even in the worst possible conditions.