How Activists Are Connecting the Dots Between Faith and the Prison Strike

By John Noble 8-30-2018
Credit: Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee

From Florida to California, imprisoned activists are organizing work stoppages, boycotting prison commissaries, and going on hunger strikes to draw attention to injustice in the U.S. prison system. Faith groups such as Christians for Socialism and The Friendly Fire Collective are supporting these prisoners as they hold a 19-day strike protesting what they call “prison slavery.” They see fighting for justice alongside prisoners as an important expression of their faith.

Christians for Socialism, a network of Christian activists, is one faith group that has endorsed the prison strike. Argentina Reeves, an organizer with CFS, said that endorsing the strike was an easy choice for CFS, since they find their spiritual grounding in scriptural accounts of imprisonment.

“Half of the New Testament is written in prison,” she said. “There’s a history of Christians being put into prison. Even God was put into prison. As Christians, we believe that God was put on death row and executed.”

The Friendly Fire Collective, a network of radical Quaker-inspired activists, have also expressed solidarity with strikers’ demands. In their endorsement, Friendly Fire proclaimed that “God is a Prison Abolitionist.”

Hye Sung Francis, a Friendly Fire activist, said that the collective grounds itself in Jesus’ mission to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18). As prison abolitionists, these radical Christians see this prison strike solidarity as a “real way to manifest Christ's gospel, to expand the experience of freedom for the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. prison system who have been robbed of their rights and forced into state-sanctioned slavery.”

A global strike for an enduring problem 

The nation-wide prison strike was called in April in response to a bloody altercation at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that left at least seven prisoners dead and 22 injured. Shortly after the “Lee Massacre,” incarcerated prisoner rights advocates with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak released a statement calling the riot a “senseless” act of violence instigated by prison overcrowding and the inaction of prison guards. In their statement, JLS called for a national prison strike with 10 demands, calling for “humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end of modern-day slavery.”

The strike has gained significant attention since its inception, with solidarity actions occurring across the world from Palestine to Germany. According to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, hundreds of prisoners in 10 U.S. states and Canada are currently facing repression from prison guards for acts of nonviolent protest. Although the strike is proudly prisoner-led, these activists also have allies on the outside: 300 organizations globally have endorsed the strike’s demands.

For both CFS and Friendly Fire, solidarity with prisoners also takes the form of repentance for Christian colonialism. In the early 19th century, Quakers and Anglicans invented solitary confinement as a method of prison reform. Activists like Francis in the Quaker-rooted Friendly Fire Collective argue that Quakers must “repent of our violent reformism, and that repentance needs to be material.”

CFS activists like Reeves agree, arguing that Christian leaders who have aided and abetted prison cruelty for centuries should see the strike as an opportunity for transformation.

“We need to be asking prisoners: What do you need? What can we materially provide for you? How can we put pressure on those who make decisions?” said Reeves.

Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the national strike, is a Christian who has devoted her life to solidarity with prisoners. She believes that Christians should follow Christ’s “lifestyle as a liberator of oppressed groups, isolated people, and outcasts.”

Sawari believes Christians should make a material commitment to being in solidarity with the prison strikers.

“Congregations and church leaders should study the demands, talk about them and host events ... that are being held by [prisoner justice] organizations,” Sawari said.

“Pastors should be educating their attendees on why the fulfillment of these demands is essential to restore humanity and human rights to millions of citizens.”

Solidarity with those building a new world 

Other Christian organizations and individuals have also taken up the fight throughout the country. In Iowa, according to Catholic Worker Jade Suganuma, members of the Des Moines Catholic Worker rallied with the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter in solidarity with striking prisoners. In Youngstown, Ohio, five faith leaders were arrested when they attempted to enter a private prison and provide spiritual care to their congregants who were detained there after an ICE raid. In Oakland, Calif. , abolitionist Christian organizer Nicole Deane said she has been working with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee to organize prisoner solidarity actions in local churches. Deane recently organized a team of 17 congregants at Oakland’s Agape Fellowship church to call prisons and show support for the demands of striking prisoners.

As imprisoned activists are making demands in this national strike, some Christians are imagining what solidarity can look like.

“Christians should accompany those seeking to abolish the systems of this world and seeking to build a new one,” said Francis, “We should even be willing to die for them.”

John Noble is a Roman Catholic student and activist pursuing a Master of Divinity at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He is involved with several initiatives for Catholic reform, and works at Pastors for Texas Children, a public school advocacy network.  

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