Crime & Courts

Protesters at SC Capitol join nationwide inmate strike for better prison conditions

Prisoners in 17 states pledged to join together Tuesday to strike against poor conditions in U.S. prisons in memory of a deadly riot that killed seven in a S.C. institution.

The strike — including work strikes, sit-ins, boycotts and hunger strikes — is expected to last until Sept. 9, the anniversary of the day that the Attica Prison riots in New York began in 1971.

Protesters inside and outside of prisons are calling for better jail conditions, fair wages for jobs done by prisoners, restoring voting rights to felons, increased funding for state rehabilitation services, providing the possibility of parole to all prisoners and expanding access to rehabilitation programs.

Relatives, friends, former inmates and activists gathered at the State House Tuesday to deliver a list of demands on behalf of S.C. prisoners to S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster.

The group, the Free South Carolina Movement, was led by surviving family members of Damonte Marquez Rivera, one of seven inmates who died in the Lee County prison riot.

“These men lost their lives and many more permanently injured due to prison mismanagement, irresponsible leadership, untrained officers and staff, and the warehousing and stockpiling of humans due to mass incarceration and over-sentencing designed to create a volatile prison culture,” said Free South Carolina Movement spokeswoman Efia Nwangaza, 71, of Greenville.

“We have to ensure that all members of the society have a real opportunity to realize their potential as human beings and to have the resources available to them to make that opportunity meaningful,” she said.

Among their demands: immediate improvements in prison conditions; prison policies “that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women;” inmates be paid prevailing wages for their labor; a zero- tolerance policy for “racism, sexism or any form of oppression or inhuman treatment” by the S.C. Department of Corrections; restoring voting rights to felons; increased funding for state rehabilitation services; and passage of a “ban-the-box” law in S.C. improving hiring practices for former convicts attempting to find employment.

Nwangaza, founder and director of Greenville’s Malcolm X Center for Self Determination, also referred to a recent, roughly $19 million proposal by S.C. Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling to curb contraband coming into the state’s prisons. Rather than use that money to “militarize” prisons, Nwangaza said it should be used to rehabilitate inmates so that “they are prepared to return to our society.”

“Today, we’re fighting for the rights of inmates to have a second chance,” said Orangeburg resident Kelvin Gadson Sr.

The 40-year-old survived being shot in the chest during a robbery, and — after leaving a life of drugs and violence, including jail time — went on to graduate from S.C. State University.

The governor’s office said the state already is working to improve prison conditions.

Since 2017, the state has created or expanded about two dozen incentive-based programs to help inmates manage their behavior and find constructive ways to occupy their time, including apprenticeships and vocational training, the governor’s office said.

“Over the past two years, correctional officer salary has increased by $4,751 and the governor has committed to continuing those increases,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. “Nobody has been more committed to providing the safest possible environment in South Carolina prisons for both officers and inmates than Governor McMaster and Director Stirling.”

Activists are hoping to duplicate a nationwide prison strike that rocked U.S. jails in 2016. This year’s strike is being dedicated to the seven men who lost their lives in the April riot at Lee Correction Institution, according to a statement from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak.

That group, which provides free legal services to prisoners, is helping spearhead the 20-day strike.

“Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology,” Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said in a statement.

Prisoners in 17 states are expected to take part in the strike, USA TODAY reported. If they do so, the prison strike could be one of the largest in U.S. history, topping the 2016 strike, in which prisoners in 12 states participated, Vox reported.

S.C. inmates are not participating in the strike component of the movement, state Corrections Department spokesman Dexter Lee said Tuesday afternoon.

However, Edward Bell, a S.C. lawyer who often works with inmates and has filed numerous lawsuits against the Corrections Department, said his clients claim a inmate hunger strike is ongoing. Bell wasn’t sure if the hunger strike was due to an ongoing lock down in some S.C. prisons or was in conjunction with the nationwide strike.

Corrections Department spokesman Lee said hunger strikes “happen from time to time” in the prison system, but he wasn’t sure if one was occurring Tuesday.

In an Aug, 13 interview with The State, Lee said the department was preparing for a possible inmate strike. “The agency will take the necessary actions to ensure the prisons are safe to operate and there are no threats to safety.”

Local protesters plan to rally outside Lee Correctional Friday, according to a statement from the Party of Socialism and Liberation. “We are rallying to show them that we stand with them in solidarity ... to encourage their continued efforts during the strike.”

A second protest is planned outside of the S.C. State House for 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 8, according to a Facebook event hosted by the I Am We Prison Advocacy Network and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak.

“In solidarity with the National Prisoners Strike for reforms, we are calling all concerned citizens out to join us in a day of rallying for prison and sentencing reforms in the state of S.C.,” the event notice reads.

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