From Behind Bars, Prison Reform Advocates Are Working To Change The System

This summer, organizers put together one of the most talked about strikes yet.

Read about all of A Plus' 2018 Game Changers of the Year here.

Swift Justice has a southern drawl and quick wit as he speaks on the phone from what he describes as an undisclosed Alabama correctional facility. He sounds fiery, frustrated and determined as he lists the injustices of the United States prison system throughout our interview. But if you ask him any details about himself — what he is behind bars for, how old he is, what his real name is — he's elusive.

Swift Justice has a voice, a story, and a prohibited cell phone to contact the outside world. He's on a mission. And yet, at least in the context of our interview, he does not think of himself as a singular man.

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"Swift Justice is not a person but represents 2.5 million people across America who are in jail as well as the 10 million children who have come in contact with the prison system through their parents who have gone to jail," he told A Plus. "That's exactly what I'm representing."

Swift Justice is an incarcerated organizer for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a group of anonymous activists in prisons across the United States. A Plus could not independently verify his exact location or identity on or off the record, but both JLS and Swift Justice provided details about his whereabouts and time in prison. Swift Justice told A Plus he has served nearly three decades in Alabama correctional facilities. He has been quoted in various media outlets across the country during that time. 

This year, JLS helped organize what has been described as one of the largest prison strikes in United States history. The actions of those prisoners was inspired by organizers like Swift Justice, who is working from the inside with other activist groups including the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), to promote a list of 10 demands for prison and justice reform.

 In 2016, FAM helped spark a work stoppage executed by more than 24,000 prisoners across 20 states. In August, prisoners in 17 states took various actions — from work strikes to hunger strikes — to promote those 10 demands once again. Swift Justice and prison organizers earned their recognition as A Plus Game Changers after they pushed prison reform into the national conversation and put pressure on the White House to pursue criminal justice reform.

Demonstrators at a New York City protest against the Rikers Island jail in 2017. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Congress is now considering a bill that reflects some of the prison strikers' demands, which are listed below.

  1. " Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women 
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and Brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was White, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and Brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called "ex-felons" must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!"

A Plus contacted Swift Justice on a cell phone that he said had been smuggled into his prison. While cell phones are prohibited, he said he uses it to stay in contact with organizers across the country on a daily basis and speak to the media. Swift Justice explained that a lot of journalists ask him how he has a cell phone, or note that it's against the rules for him to have one, and he often responds by naming civil rights icons like Rosa Parks who broke the law to advance their movement. 

While he insisted the risk of having a phone was not that great, considering he's willing to sacrifice his life for the cause, it's certainly a roll of the dice. Kinetic Justice, another well-known organizer who spoke to A Plus via text message before he stopped responding to question, was allegedly held in solitary confinement after being caught with a phone, according to Swift Justice. Several news organization reported on Kinetic Justice's confinement, but none published an exact time frame. 

"What we are in right now is a fight for our lives inside the prison system," Swift Justice said. "It's not necessarily the fact that we have a cell phone, it's the fact that we're using that as a tool to expose the system for what it is."

At the heart of the prison organizer's movement are two major arguments: one is that the prison system is not designed to rehabilitate inmates. Instead, many of these prisoners insist, the system creates repeat offenders and is meant to keep them behind bars. In 2017, the United States Sentence Commission (USSC) found that 49.3 percent the inmates released from federal prison were re-arrested within the next eight years. A Bureau of Justice statistic study found that inmates released from state prisons has a "five-year recidivism rate of 76.6 percent," HuffPost reported. The second argument, which is also addressed in their list of demands, is the idea that the prison system uses cheap prison labor as a form of modern day slavery. The 13th Amendment strictly prohibits slavery, with the exclusions of formally convicted criminals who can legally be enslaved. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," the Amendment reads. About 17,000 inmates inside federal prisons alone work across various factories, farms, and call centers, according to a Department of Justice report. 

For Swift Justice, abolishing that exclusion is the most important part of his work. While he says "all 10 demands are as important as any one," he also insists that this section in the 13th amendment is the root problem of the justice system. In fact, Swift Justice said, he does not consider himself a prison reformist. Instead, he says he is a "slavery abolitionist." 

"Nobody inside the prison system is saying, 'Hey I did the crime but I don't want to do the time,'" Swift Justice said. "That's not what we are saying. We are actually crying out — we have a problem, but why doesn't society have a problem with what the system is actually creating? What the system is creating in the absence of true rehabilitation."

"Until society starts realizing they are the investors in what's going on inside the prison system, and having a problem with it, nothing is going to change," he added. "The crime rate is not going to go down and the recidivism rate is not going to go down."

When prisoners organize, they face great obstacles. Often times, prisons will deny a strike is even happening. This year, prison administrators in North Carolina and Virginia took the extraordinary step of acknowledging a strike was happening inside their correctional facilities, which was considered a major win for the prisoners on strike. But often times, prisons will punish organizers with physical abuse, by not allowing them contact to the outside world, by putting suspected organizers in solitary confinement, or by a denial of daily necessities, Swift Justice said. And yet, Swift Justice added, the organizers continue to stick together.

Asked about that solidarity, Swift Justice said it comes from a hope for a better world. Each time their strikes get national media attention, the list of demands — which the prisoners believe are reasonable — are seen by more Americans. Recently, Swift Justice claimed, a sitting member of U.S. Congress contacted him and encouraged him to keep doing what he was doing, even commenting that the prison strikes were a hot topic in Washington D.C. While there aren't any politicians pushing the demands publicly, Swift Justice said he believes "there is a season for everything."

"We all have the same goal," Swift Justice said. "We want to leave a mark on this world, not a scar. We've left plenty of scars. And we're seeing what we're doing as a positive not just for the ones who are currently alive but the ones following up behind us."

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