Incarcerated People Organize to Abolish Slavery

Amy Mevorach
Issue Date: 
October, 2018
Article Body: 

When Adrian Coleman and Martin Henson, representatives of Deeper Than Water, engaged Natick’s Racial Justice Dialogue in early August on the topic of clean water in prisons, the nationwide prison strike was about to begin. The water quality in Massachusetts prisons has deteriorated since 1990 when a wastewater treatment plant was built near a cluster of three prisons, MCI Norfolk, MCI Cedar Junction (formerly MCI Walpole) and Pondville Correctional Center. Since then, the water has changed from heavily chlorinated to sulfurous with toxic levels of sediment, manganese, and rust, and the color has turned from clear to beige to brown to black. Prisoners have reported skin lesions, gastrointestinal illness, and cancer, and some say they can feel shards of metal in the running water from the shower.
Deeper Than Water, a coalition formed to expose human rights abuses in United States prisons, communicated with Adrian Coleman’s brother Wayland and other incarcerated people about the conditions and supported Wayland’s purchase of cases of bottled water from the canteen to share with other prisoners.
The guards apprehended 14 cases of the water, and one guard, said Adrian, “put Wayland in a chokehold and dragged him to the hole for buying water to share with other prisoners. It should not be a criminal offense.”
“The hole” refers to solitary confinement, which is a small room where the prisoner is kept in isolation for 23 hours a day. “It’s scorching hot, and in winter it’s freezing,” said Adrian. Food is sparse and could be spoiled, and from solitary confinement there is no access to the canteen to buy necessities or alternative food. Wayland stayed in the hole for ten days. His phone access was revoked for 60 days and canteen access revoked for 90 days.
On August 23, in response to a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, prisoners all over the United States began a strike to demand humane treatment. Their ten demands included voting rights for confined citizens and people released after being charged with felonies. During the strike, which lasted until September 9, many prisoners participated in hunger strikes, boycotts, work strikes, or sit-ins.
One demand is for an end to prison slavery which, for example, offers California inmates $1 per hour to fight fires under the most dangerous conditions. The strike demands that prisoners receive the prevailing wage for labor in their state or territory.
“Slavery is permitted by the 13th amendment to the Constitution,” Adrian said. The amendment states that “neither slavery nor solitary servitude shall exist within the U.S. or anywhere in their jurisdiction, except as punishment of crime.”
Deeper Than Water held a rally outside the walls of the Nashua Street Jail in Boston on August 23 to support the prison strike. The rally began with a phone call from Wayland Coleman, still incarcerated, which was amplified to the group witnessing, including the row of armed guards on the prison steps. In his speech, he protested “the subhuman concept called inmates that allows human beings to be treated like animals and in some cases lower than animals.” In a 95 degree heat wave this summer, guards poured bottled water into dishes for the prison dogs, while restricting bottled water for the people. “Let’s eliminate the negative labels attached to people who incarcerated. We are incarcerated people, incarcerated members of society, incarcerated members of our community. When the human element is returned, the structure of oppression is weakened. We will fight dehumanization with humanization.”
In a closing speech, Adrian cited the increase in numbers of prisoners from 357,000 in 1970 to 2,300,000 in 2014, fueled by our tax dollars. “It’s a growth industry,” he said. “We the people should be able to track every single dollar.” He quoted his brother Wayland as saying, “the walls of so called correctional institutions are not to keep incarcerated people from getting out, they are there to keep you from looking in.”
To increase communication and understanding of the reality of prison conditions and to develop relationships through walls, Deeper Than Water members encourage everyone in the community to write letters to a person in prison. To be connected with a pen pal, email [email protected].