The Nationwide Prison Strike: Why It’s Happening and What It Means for Ending Mass Incarceration

Earlier this spring, violence broke out in the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, resulting in seven deaths and many injuries. Incarcerated leaders in the South Carolina prison system decided they had had enough. Brutal treatment from corrections officers, deteriorating prison conditions, and incredibly long, punitive sentences had led to a condition of hopelessness in South Carolina’s prisons.

Leaders within the South Carolina prison system began reaching out to incarcerated allies across the country, including the Free Alabama Movement, who had led a prison strike in 2016. A decision was made: It was time to launch a national prison strike to raise awareness around the brutality of mass incarceration.

On Tuesday, these incarcerated leaders and their partners are launching a “Nationwide Prison Strike” to raise awareness of not only the horrific conditions throughout the American prison system but the broader injustices that have led to our current system of mass incarceration — from racist police practices to unjust sentencing laws to the lack of support people experience when they come home from prison.  

The Nationwide Prison Strike, scheduled to last from Aug. 21 to Sept. 9, is centered around 10 specific policy demands. These demands include significantly reducing the number of people in jail and prison, improving prison conditions, properly funding rehabilitation, and addressing racism throughout the criminal justice system.

None of the demands, taken individually, is new to the criminal justice movement. Many organizations, including the ACLU, have fought against the rise of mass incarceration and the horrendous conditions of American prisons. Yet this may be the first occasion in which incarcerated leaders have coordinated nationally to list their specific policy agenda to end the system that has imprisoned them.

The strike’s organizers are emphasizing Demand #10, also known as the #Right2Vote campaign, a demand that all American citizens of voting age — including all people in jail, prison, or on parole — have the right to vote. In an early planning call, one organizer noted that the right to vote was the right from which all other rights flowed and stressed the need for people outside of prison to support this change. Presently, only Maine and Vermont permit all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens the right to vote.

The term “strike” itself refers to incarcerated people across the country engaging in various types of nonviolent disobedience within the prison system, including not reporting to their workstations, from Aug. 21 to Sept. 9. This tactic is closely tied with a demand that prison labor be properly compensated, in contrast to what one of the organizers calls “slave labor,” referencing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery but carved out an exception for people who have been convicted of criminal offenses.

Even the dates of the strike are rooted in a broader historical narrative that the organizers are seeking to bring into the public discourse. The strike will begin on Aug. 21, the anniversary of a 1971 prison rebellion in San Quentin, California, and will end on Sept. 9, the anniversary of the famous Attica uprising, a 1971 prison protest in upstate New York that turned deadly.

The activism during this strike will largely take place within prison walls, but people on the outside can still show their support. In an interview conducted shortly before the strike, an organizer expressed hope that supporters of the strike and its demands would participate in acts of solidarity in their local communities or outside of the facilities themselves, as incarcerated people are encouraged and energized by such showing of support.

The ACLU supports the demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, including #Right2Vote. We believe in lifting up the voices of those who are most directly impacted by the systems that oppress them. Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and nobody is closer than people living inside of America’s jails and prisons. And while the ACLU has no formal role in the strike, ACLU staff and members have fought for decades for many of these issues in the streets, state legislatures, and the courtroom.  

Acts of civil disobedience inside of prisons come with serious risks for participants, including severe punishment. Corrections officials should not respond with unjust retaliation. Peaceful demonstrations challenging unjust conditions and practices do not merit placing participants into solitary confinement or adding time to their sentences. Incarcerated people and corrections staff deserve safety, dignity, and the ability to express themselves.

The American criminal justice system is broken, and now we have an opportunity to hear from those most impacted by its corruption and abuse. Our country is stronger when people more marginalized and directly impacted by unjust policies organize and raise their voices to demand a better future.

The courageous people who are bringing focused attention to America’s system of mass incarceration through the Nationwide Prison Strike deserve our admiration. The time to listen is now.

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Maria miller

You live in the dark , it could happen to you or a loved one guilty or not ! It’s. All about corporations and. Profit from slavery in the prisons ! Wake. Up and look around you most those people. Railroaded into yet another profitable. Victory conviction have done nothing wrong. And got no due process of law ! Just this is how it is eat it they target poor people so they can’t even fight. Back and you put down these people you don’t know jack shit about life and how things work ! So go back to your sheltered little. Life and keep your out dated opinion to your self !


I hate to be you when you enter the Pearly Gates.Sorry, Only those with a good heart can pass thru! You have serious issues.

Heidi Jo Bean

How about we just decriminalize drugs, prosecute violent offenders, lock pedophiles, rapists and stalkers up for life, and eliminate all private prisons instead?

Ahnt Ann

From the few upfront comments I've read it seems that people don't get what Dr Leary was actually saying. To some people jails are believed to be an expedient deterrent to crime. Dr Leary posits the idea that it would be far more effective to simply find those who will (or may) commit these crimes and maim or execute them before they have the chance. GET IT? Timothy Leary was an educated, intelligent and well read man for all his faults. He sure as shit was supportive of the ACLU. I can almost hear his calm, quiet, almost giggling with anger voice pronouncing this.

Dr. Timothy Dreary

Because government has never falsly convicted anyone.


Starting with you. Dr. Dummy!


And yet, your continued support of the Citizens United decision is support for the outsized voice that the private prison lobby has over the conditions these prisoners are protesting. It's support for a system that gives those who impose such inhumane conditions far more power to effect change than those most affected. It's taken a nationwide strike, something presumably pretty hard to coordinate among incarcerated populations with limited communications access, for this movement to get less attention than a private prison can get by expending a fraction of their lobbying budget on a simple ad buy. A budget that eclipses what the ACLU and other donor-funded organizations that claim to be on the side of justice and civil rights can possibly bring to bear. When are you going to take a sensible stance on Citizens United and help restore democracy to this country? You cannot seriously claim to be on the side of the disenfranchised while supporting a decision that does nothing but perpetuate their disenfranchisement.


Let me think about it. Do you know of any dark PAC money that has influenced the decision? Are civil rights assumed to be purchased by the wealthy, and thus, are lobbyists buying and selling these freedoms by way of the Citizens United decision? Who exactly are the disenfranchised, the ones in the prison system? Why is giving corporations a "free speech" provision so disastrous to the public at large; aren't these corporations also the people we call principals, shareholders and consumers? You can update me when you know.

In one way I can imagine, I agree with you in a world of nothing but hedge fund owners and institutional investors -- with all the money locked-up in non-transferable financial vehicles during a market downturn, with a lot of exposure to loss. Such a vertical consolidation would be a worse case scenario.


Hey AnonymouS! Citizens United is what’s corrupting our elections with money, not speech, fool. Since you forgot, here’s a refresher, the Conservative Justices on the Supreme Court passed this shit law in 2010 thinking their party would win all future elections with all that Right wing billionaire campaign funding. Bet the 2012 election was a bummer for them, but they regrouped and somehow Chump got elected. So all the religious righty societies’ efforts to get dozens and dozens of unqualified Stepford lawyers confirmed across the country is working so that your ilk can roll back progress (you think) and make America white, straight, and Christian again. Good luck with that...Chump and Pence only appeal to your crowd, which is still the minority of voters (popular vote), even with gerrymandering and voter suppression and the rest of the losing team’s shenigans to cheat, since they can’t win any other way. The for-profit prison system, that little Jeffy Sessions is invested in, is corrupt, making its investors money, which is why sentences are stupid long and offenses are ridiculously weak. But you keep telling yourself that trickle down works...and maybe someday when you’re living on the street and babbling to yourself, someone will throw you a bone.


The private prison systems are funded by world banks and people for profit, like animals they care only about money. The conditions for staff and inmates are dangerous, callous and in humane. Female staff and inmates are frequently raped at work . Im a female counselor, and was offered a job as counselor working 1 to 50 with male sex offenders, my only safety would have been radio connection to one (probably male) correctional officer who may have been one of the many staff members who likes to rape less powerful people. I turned down that job, of course, after reading about all the staff rapes within the Geo-Groups private prison systems in USA, and who their investors really are, and how little they protect their staff and vulnerable inmates.


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