IN APRIL 2018, people incarcerated at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, leaked a gruesome cell phone video to CBS News after a series of fights left seven people dead and at least seventeen others in need of outside medical attention. According to an imprisoned witness of the riot, guards refused to intervene as “prisoners’ bodies began stacking up” and did not return for hours, leaving the incarcerated to fend for themselves. One leaked image showed three dead bodies amassed, as if they were “roadkill,” against a prison fence.
At a press conference the prison administration blamed this “mass casualty event” on warring gangs and an influx of “contraband” — namely cell phones — which supposedly allowed imprisoned people to “continue their criminal ways from behind bars.” But, as those imprisoned at Lee contended, it was the prison administration who incited violence. The administration encouraged fights, repressed prisoner-led efforts to de-escalate tension, and stoked racial and cultural divides between prisoners. Cell phones, people imprisoned in the South Carolina Department of Corrections told the independent outlet Shadowproof, were framed as the central problem so that guard neglect and abuse could go unrecorded in the future.
In response to this vulgar display of state-sanctioned violence, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a collective of imprisoned people organizing for prisoners’ human rights, called for a national prisoners’ strike. In several states, incarcerated people participated in work stoppages, sit-ins, boycotts, and hunger strikes over a period of nearly three weeks. The strike — and its corresponding list of ten demands for men and women in federal, immigration, and state facilities — received international media coverage, with outlets foregrounding organizers’ calls for improving prison conditions, reinstating federal voting rights, and ending the regime of modern-day slavery that forces imprisoned people to work for minuscule pay. But there was one item on the list that received little attention: the demand for Congress to repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or PLRA.
On paper, legislators passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act to halt what congresspeople erroneously called an epidemic of “meritless” prisoner-initiated lawsuits clogging court dockets. But the law’s effect — crushing imprisoned people’s access to the courts and limiting the federal courts’ power to remedy heinous prison conditions, especially via population control orders — was to severely narrow a key terrain of struggle for imprisoned people fighting not only for relief from abusive treatment and inhumane conditions, but also against the expansion of an intensifying regime of racialized mass imprisonment.