Incarcerated Organizers Are Resisting Amid Deteriorating Conditions

Officials spin lies about violent crime and blame bail reform for it, while police insist that too many people are being released from jail, prison conditions in the United States remain terrible. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with organizer Brooke Terpstra about a hunger strike at the Santa Rita Jail in California, and about some of the complexities and political dynamics of organizing in jails and prisons.

Credit for the music: ​Son MonarcasAmaranth Cove


Note: This is a rush transcript that has been lightly edited to improve clarity. Copy may not be final.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a TruthoutPodcast about things you need to know if your goal is to make a difference in the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. This show is all about movement building and abolishing prisons. We also discuss the need to end capitalism before we end it. Today we will hear from imprisoned Californians about their hunger strike. We will also discuss some of the dynamics, contradictions, and conditions that organizers and co-strugglers must navigate in their work. We will be hearing from Brooke Terpstra with Oakland Abolition & Solidarity, an organization that supports imprisoned people’s “efforts to organize for their own self-defense against inhumane treatment.”

Whether you are an abolitionist or not, we should all feel compelled to highlight what’s happening in jails and prisons in this country right now. The prison-industrial complex acts as a social disposal system. In times of crisis, these systems can become more brutal, deadly, and exploitative. That has been the case for incarcerated people during the pandemic, who have endured conditions like continuous lockdown — which means mass solitary confinement — and rampant COVID infection without the ability to practice social distancing or access to functional health care. They also have to deal with water shortages and inedible food. There are many other horrors that they face. Local officials continue to hide their failures, including the carceral violence, while fear mongering continues about crime and the need for tougher punishments for violent criminals. Mayors have already disproven the notion that bail reform drives crime. Police insist that if there were more people in jail, it would make us safer, even though there is no evidence to support this conclusion. They are creating a narrative about the need to have a method of disposal where guilt is determined immediately by arresting officers. Sentences begin immediately. Focusing on “law and order” as the solution to many of the crises we face prevents us from asking deeper questions about why we are experiencing violence and what real safety would look like. It also dehumanizes millions of people who are ensnared by the prison-industrial complex and reinforces the idea that it’s for the best if they simply disappear into the system.

We cannot allow the normalization and acceptance of human disposability to continue unchallenged, now or ever, but particularly now. We must oppose the ways prisons make people disappear and how corporate media makes them disappear. To ensure capitalism survives and maintain some form of a status-quo, the abandonment of and disposal of human beings is increasing. But people behind jail and prison walls are not passively accepting their oppression — they’re fighting back. Brooke Terpstra, a Brooke Terpstra spokesman for the Oakland Resistance, provided some background information to help us understand this struggle.

Brooke Terpstra: Out here in Oakland, we have our county jail, and as to what’s going on there right now, Santa Rita is a mega jail. It was completed in ’89, at the same time Pelican Bay SHU [Special Housing Unit]Our supermax prison, a was built right here in Northern California during the prison construction boom. Santa Rita, at its peak design capacity, can hold about 4,000 people, even a little bit more, and its neighbor out there, in this big complex out in the suburbs, which used to be an army base, there’s also FCI [Federal Correctional Institution]Dublin, which serves as a federal facility for women.

Santa Rita is a notorious shithole. Although all prisons and jails have the same mandates and issues, Santa Rita is a notorious shithole.

In the immediate, Santa Rita is experiencing multiple issues right now that are not related to COVID. Primarily, what we’re focusing on right now is a hunger strike that was initiated January 8th, by a group of a few dozen prisoners, around food conditions, around commissary price gouging, and shoddy food being served on their trays, that’s foul, filthy and inadequate. We’re essentially in phase two of this hunger strike now, where it’s gone from several dozen incarcerated folks in multiple units on a liquid-only hunger strike to a rolling hunger strike in one unit, with a core group that’s taking turns on hunger strike.

Now, for all of those of us that have either been locked up or had family locked up, we’re pretty acquainted with the realities of commissary. You can purchase supplemental food, hygiene supplies, paper, pencils, and pens inside the commissary. But you can also buy packages to send to your family members inside. And a big group that does this is called the Keefe Group, K-E-E-F-E, and they’re one of these corporations that runs a multitude of “services” for incarcerated people, whether it be phones, or financial services, like money transfers, but they run, primarily, a big commissary operation.

Now, when you go onto their website to order a package for your people inside, you will notice that first of all, you have to designate which facility you’re ordering from, because the prices change from facility to facility. The deals they cut with jailers vary from one county to the other, and they’re widely different. Amazon prices are the same for all orders made by a free citizen (or outsider) who is a citizen. When you’re locked up, the prices completely vary according to the whims of your jailer, or how much they’re ripping you off.

The Keefe Group provides commissary services for multiple counties in the Bay Area, San Mateo and Santa Clara, San Francisco and Alameda. They just passed COVID at the end December, the second major price hike of the pandemic. And to give you an idea of the price gouging going on…. These are the essential items that you will need to purchase to supplement the food that they provide. You don’t get enough food to survive on your own, nor do you have enough hygiene products. This is a myth that you get this tiny packet of stuff. They hand you your towel, and your toothpaste, and your toothbrush, and all that stuff, and they feed you these trays in a big chow hall, that are big… They’re slop, but like plenty of it.

These things come in on plastic or rubbery trays, through your door or to your POD, you know, your dormitory, really minor portions, carbohydrate heavy, fat heavy, cheap, sometimes coming from ingredients that are labeled, “Not fit for human consumption,” on the bags and cans, and these are now largely prepared by other corporations, that Santa Rita, the in-house food, is cooked and distributed by Aramark, another big corporation that exists essentially to privatize what was before a function of the state, or you know, so-called convict labor inside facilities. They have a for profit kitchen in our Santa Rita mega jail and can ship food to other facilities from this kitchen. This kitchen was built using taxpayer money.

In essence, you must buy commissary in order to not starve or to have coffee or toothpaste. You need this stuff to live. Even if you just need to buy your own towels and shower shoes. Basically, ramen or coffee is for the people who have had their hands locked up. These and honey buns are the main items inside. Now, for the rest of the folks that don’t know what it’s like to be locked up, these are basic… You can trade them or drink them, but they’re almost currency inside, but also like fundamental foodstuffs in your cell.

Ramen now costs between 25 and 30 cents at your local corner store. The recent price increase in December saw it go up from a penny 13 to a penny 49, nearly six times more than what you would find at your local corner shop. A four-ounce packet of instant coffee costs a mere buck 79 at Walmart. It was $4 in December. Now it’s been jacked up to 6.75. And to give you an idea of this, I want to read a little statement from someone inside, that basically was explaining what’s going on.

His name is JJ. He’s a hunger striker. Quote:

I started doing the math and every month, I usually spend 500 to $550 on food, and that’s been going on for almost three years, so that’s around $18,000. I don’t come from a family with money. My mom works in a grocery store. She’s been working throughout the pandemic, even though a lot of people there have gotten sick and quit, and she still puts money on my books every month, even though I don’t ask her to. I have been eating the jail food, and sometimes I’ve mixed it with commissary food. It was when I learned about the profits that it broke me down. My mom puts money on my books. My mom pays taxes and the jail makes money off of her and off of us as inmates, and they’re getting away with it.

That’s essentially a kind of snapshot of your lot in life when you’re locked up, and off the commissary, the sheriff takes 40% of the profits here. 40 percent. They claim it goes to an inmate welfare fund. But no one inside knows that. There are no programs there, and nothing is being paid for. [by]The inmate welfare fund, as well as any attempts by outside groups to audit Sheriff Department have all been denied.

So essentially, these folks inside have had enough, and on the outside, there’s a group of folks that have gathered to basically lend pressure and collaborate with them in terms of changing their conditions inside. And now, we’re basically coming up, in about a week, on two months of inside-outside organizing. That’s essentially the conditions inside the jail right now.

San Francisco has recently set the standard for pricing, which is a great goal. We’re struggling basically just to even out the prices across the Bay. San Mateo was the last to go on hunger strike. However, it was during the uprising of 2020. Jailers and cops were nervous, and they gave in pretty quickly, and essentially, they stopped ripping off prisoners to the degree they are, they still are, over here in Alameda, and evened up their prices with San Francisco, so ramen there is basically 52 cents, essentially 40 percent of what it is now here, and this makes a huge difference in people’s lives, and also in terms of economic hardship upon families.

KHBrooke outlined the differences between organizing in prisons and prisons and how COVID-19 has affected those dynamics.

BT: The demands nationwide, even across most of the Global North, and South, it’s around conditions, the most basic things. It’s not unusual for prisoners to become more active and agitated, and it happens when you least expect it. Like here, we didn’t organize this hunger strike from the outside-in. We’re basically playing catch-up, and folks inside already took it on.

So, organizing happens all the time inside, if folks don’t know, in one way or another, and resistance looks very different, and happens in 1,000 different ways, whether it’s just taking care of each other, whether it’s refusing movements, whether it’s maintaining a certain degree of autonomy, whether it’s noncooperation with the cops, whether it’s just sharing food and medicine, which is contraband inside. That’s forbidden. All these different ways a certain level of organizing goes on, and in all prison yards and in jail dormitories, there’s a certain kind of miniature society, with its own kind of rules and culture that develops.

Now, within prisons, there’s people serving much longer time in a much more kind of established culture, which is understandable, considering that some people are spending the rest of their lives in there. Within county jails, it’s a bit different. Although the basic purpose of a jail and its structural function are very similar to a Prison, which is to destabilize communities and to provide violent backup to any demand or order from the state, and also to invisibilize every social problem or contradiction that exists outside of the prison, they basically shove it into a black box that they try keep hidden and out of the way. Here in our jail, it’s actually even out of the line of sight from residential housing. It’s behind big berms, so not only is there communications blackout, a political blackout, but actual, physical hiding away of what’s going on.

But within counties, it’s a much more transitory population. People move in and out of the country all the time, which serves the exact same purpose. There are over 11 million arrests each year in this country. This is a permanent object lesson being taught to the people who are imprisoned or policed. They’re a constant reminder, a constant spanking, a constant like punch to the face, on exactly what you can expect if you step out of line, and it’s a constant destabilization of these communities.

Now, but inside, that leads to a population that doesn’t spend much time together, that doesn’t have much time to develop this kind of organizing culture or this kind of established hierarchy, or even establish their own kind of lines of communication in and out of the facility or amongst each other on different yards. In a prison, essentially, even if they transfer you to another yard, there’s a very developed kind of network of people kind of passing kites or getting word to each other through quarters, due to the kind of offhand stability that’s created with these long sentences.

But with COVID, there’s been a backfire. Like, so many people are spending so much time inside, waiting for their cases to be done, it’s lent this inside population much more longevity and time with each other to develop kind of a culture amongst each other, and also much longer times essentially spent inside to witness the pattern of what’s going on. When you’re going in, some people think they’re just visiting, and then it takes basically three to six months for that to wear off and realize, “Okay, this is going to be my life for a while, while I spend two, three years fighting my case, because I’m poor and working class, and can’t buy my way out of here,” that they see the patterns going in and out, the people going in and out, and essentially, their daily life is instructing them exactly on the contradictions and nature of the state, and the nature of incarceration. So there’s been a backfire. It’s not only the stress of COVID, and the kind of escalation of abuse and neglect that comes with the pandemic that’s led to increased incarcerated activity inside and agitation, but it’s due to the longer time and the stability that’s been lent to these populations.

KHBrooke and me also discussed the complexities involved in engaging with struggles for better conditions in institutions that should not exist. In my own organizing work, incarceration-related demands tend to center on getting people out of jail, prison or detention. People are often trapped inside and their well-being must not be compromised. With millions of people in fascistic, torturous conditions, we will see mobilizations to change those conditions, led primarily by people currently in prison. We must meet these mobilizations as we would any group of marginalized persons rebelling against the dire conditions being imposed on their lives.

BT: As abolitionists, and as people who have come a long way in understanding the structures of the world, which is mainly antagonisms & domination, and as people who have come to a conclusion that points towards a revolutionary approach, what sense does it make to organize around these immediate conditions. Are we actually trying to build a more humane jail, piece by piece? Are those people agitating against their landlords for heat to be turned on? Or agitating for healthy landlord exploitation relationships? Are those organizing at work attempting to eliminate humane capitalism and humane exploitation?

In certain ways, liberalism says yes, that it’s essentially a corruption or a failure of engagement, civic engagement, or just kind of a relationship that’s gone awry, but remedy lies within legal processes, or reform, to essentially right the sinking ship, and this is something worth saving. What is the point of organizing around conditions for those who don’t believe in this?

Now, we’re essentially engaging in politicization. We’re not going to endlessly organize around food conditions, or this, or that, and we don’t. As politically engaged people in struggle, we evaluate where our time and energy should be directed towards what makes sense over a given trajectory, over a particular time period. It must point in a specific direction.

Now, when you’re locked up… I mean, if you don’t know already, once you get locked up, all the explanations as to what the institution is about or why you are there, nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense anymore. You’re basically being kidnapped and being held hostage for next to no reason. Like, even if you haven’t been convicted, nothing that’s happening to you actually makes sense. There’s no rehabilitation. Whatever harm you might have caused, this is being compounded, and every condition that basically pointed you towards harm, even if it happened, and you have to remember, half the people inside counties haven’t even been convicted of anything yet [Editor’s Note: In California, three quarters of all imprisoned people in county jails have not been convicted of a crime]Except that you are actually poor. You cannot buy your way out.

So essentially, you’re being chided for being violent, or stealing, or whatever your charge is, and keep in mind, your charges have next to nothing to do with what actually went on. Your charges are a result of the DA’s cards, their own career, or if you have it out for the cops, but they don’t make sense in your everyday life. So essentially, from every second of every day, you’re face-to-face with a violent, intense contradiction, all day long. It’s the arbitrariness, the pettiness, and the violence. Imagine being charged and vilified for charges of violence while basically, you’re being violently treated 24/7, every single day, the height of that hypocrisy.

People are looking for answers to this problem. There are some things that are ready to catch them. For example, ideology or liberalism. We need to reform the system. We need to legislate, or vote, something to fix this. Or, you have the other mythology of legal action, that these things will be changed, these conditions, or the structure that’s landed you in there can be changed by court case or litigation. We’ve come to an understanding that none of these are true. These mythologies are oppressive and counterinsurgent in their own ways. These are the ways the system is maintained.

It’s back to organizing around conditions. How does organizing around circumstances actually challenge or overcome these mythologies? We know that the main obstacles to working-class people getting involved in this historical period are those of non-white, diasporic, black, new African populations, working-class whites. They can also defend themselves or build a liberatory movement. Number one is the Neoliberal Socialization of Passivity or Fatalism. This or a professionalized or counterinsurgent advocacy industry, the nonprofits. Social movements are still dominated largely by the middle class, as is number three.

So against these basic blocs, we’re essentially helping people organize on their own behalf, but like overcoming, one, that passivity and fatalism. Number two, helping people organize from the inside. Ours is a collaborative arrangement. We’re not saving anybody, and we’re willing to collaborate with you on basically negotiated points of alignment. We don’t organize with white supremacists or with groups of prisoners that target other groups of prisoners. We have certain criteria but they must be directed in a specific direction. But like folks organizing on behalf, like in this hunger strike around conditions, they’re taking the most direct activity possible.

KHBrooke and his costrugglers don’t believe the prison system can ever be redeemed by the courts. However they do engage with some collaborative efforts with attorneys. Brooke presented some important considerations to organizers who want them to make sure they are leveraging a legal resource and not allowing non-profits or attorneys to take control of their struggle.

BT: We accept any tactic that is presented to us. We don’t reject a tactic because it doesn’t fit a purity principle, but in actual what it delivers, and what’s going on in terms of political economy, and relationships, and the larger trajectory, does it make sense?

And the predominant method, you have to realize… Just lay out the basic facts of the present context. Present context is that the legal avenue is presented as a system-affirming pull, a gravitational center, as a fully functional mythology that’s hegemonic. It’s presented by the state and presented by liberalism as the proper way to proceed, and it is dominant. So if you’re going to engage with it, you have to be very clear about where power lies and on the terms in which you engage with legal proceedings.

The lawyers will try to establish the strategy wherever you go in this country. You have to organize your own affairs and make sure you know the criteria. Lawyers should not be a servant of the political battle. The politics are not an instrument of legal struggle. You should retain the power to say no or to decide the course of legal proceedings.

Now, in terms of waging successful campaigns, I think you have to be real about who’s setting agendas, and of cost-benefit, and ask hard questions, and that demands honesty, which, truth be told, is a very rare quality in movement circles. That level of self-examination and grasping the reality of one situation. So it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s just that you don’t take orders from the lawyers, and don’t take orders from the legal ideology either. But we’re working with lawyers now, because this is actually how the conditions and the changes… how the state makes them legible. Even if it concedes, even if it’s a containment tactic for a movement. This is how it manifests in the apparatus state as written policy as a solution, as a precedent.

But the real tension is between something that’s… It’s not between the menu of tactics you’re engaging in. It’s much more difficult to evaluate and measure revolutionary strategy and movement than it is to keep an eye on where power lies. Who is making the decisions? Are we actually successful in lobbying away from becoming lawyers, preaching civic engagement, making good citizens through litigation, etc., or are our goals oriented outwards towards a self-reliant, revolutionary base of power? Is it possible to believe in our own abilities? Is it possible to say no to a legal strategy?

Because if you can’t actually say yes or no, or modify a legal strategy, you’re not really making a choice whatsoever. And that’s, what is the essence of strategy? Strategy is one of the few things that we have. We don’t have all the guns. We don’t have position. We don’t have the capital. All movements are very minoritarian. However, we do have strategy. The essence of strategy is: It’s making choices.

And if you don’t have a choice as to what you pursue, sometimes that’s dictated by context, but sometimes it’s dictated by the cop in your head or the ideology in your head. So we’re not averse to pursuing using a legal tool, as long as we acknowledge that it’s a tool, and that we aren’t the tool being used by the legal system.

KH: December Roxanne Barnes wrote about Timothy PhillipsPhillips is currently in Santa Rita Jail. Phillips is a jailhouse attorney, which means that he represents himself and provides legal assistance to others with self-acquired knowledge, rather than formal training. Phillips described being put in solitary confinement or forcibly removed from people he helped, such as an autistic friend who Phillips would help to write grievances. On one occasion, Phillips inquired about why he was placed in solitary confinement and was told by a deputy that he was being punished for “complaining too much.” As Barnes wrote, “The [Prison Litigation Reform Act]This law requires that all incarcerated persons exhaust the grievance procedure before they can litigate. Yet Phillips was sent to solitary for ‘complaining too much’ — in other words, for being exhausting.”

The system is rigged against the people it seeks to manage and control, and it’s reach is ever-expanding. I can recall stories about crematoriums operating around the clock when COVID was at its peak in some cities. Some municipalities made special allowances for the pollution. In disastrous times, jails and prisons don’t have to get special permission to cause more hunger, suffering or death. They did not ask permission to become major engines for the spread of a deadly contagion, even though the system’s impacts were predictable. Crematoriums required permission to produce additional smoke to dispose of the dead. However, the prison-industrial complex doesn’t need permission to cause more pain and death. Prisons and jails extract time from people’s lives, while containing and controlling human beings, in order to maintain the norms of capitalism. They are doing what is best for them right now, in all of the crisis’s intensity and with the brazenness that only invisibility allows. Because unlike the smoke from the crematoriums’, the damage done to jails and prisons are not being treated as a harm to public that must be weighed. It is not being treated as a crisis. It is being hidden while officials tell it that the real crisis is not that enough people are going to those places but that too many people are getting away.

You can help combat that erasure by uplifting stories of struggle, like what’s happening in the Santa Rita Jail, and by supporting groups that organize inside and outside of prison walls for the well-being, survival and liberation of imprisoned people. We will provide links in the show notes to help you get involved in solidarity work and support incarcerated organizers. Brooke Terpstra, who spoke with me about Santa Rita Jail and the powerful organizing that incarcerated persons are doing, is a special thank you. I want to thank all our listeners for joining me today. Remember, the best defense against cynicism and to do good is to remember that what we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show notes

  • You can learn more about Oakland Abolition & Solidarity here.
  • Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a national collective of imprisoned individuals fighting for human right, provides legal education, resources, assistance, and support to other prisoners. JLS works with organizers in prisons and other locations across the country. Learn more about how to get involved and support their work here.
  • Survived & Punished is a network that works to end criminalization of survivors from domestic and sexual violence. You can find out more about their work. here.