On March 18th, prisoners at Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania began a sit-in. Eighty prisoners took part in the action to demand more case workers, better medical services, and a legitimate grievance procedure. Last night, masked demonstrators converged on the jail in solidarity with those protesting inside and smashed windows of the jail, a security camera, and several police vehicles. The action was broken up after police arrested eleven protesters.
Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) imprisons more than 2,500 people, and its population has increased by 70% in the last two decades. ACJ has a long history of abuse and was the subject of a 2010 FBI investigation that found officials there were covering up abuse of prisoners. Health conditions at the jail are also notoriously bad; eleven people died while incarcerated at ACJ in just 2014 and 2015.
Eighty-one percent of the people being incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail haven’t been convicted of a crime and are in being incarcerated pretrial. Many of these people are being held on bail they cannot pay, meaning they are only incarcerated because they lack access to a certain amount of money.
In a monetary bail system, access to money determines whether someone will be released or detained pretrial. Someone who can’t afford bail will likely be incarcerated for the duration of their trial, which could be years. Even a few days of pretrial incarceration often means the difference between working and being fired or paying rent and being evicted. Right now, more than 450,000 people are incarcerated in US jails—most of them in pretrial detention and most of those people because they cannot pay bail. In effect, our legal system is punishing people for being poor.
In the past year, there has been a dramatic increase in action being taken by incarcerated people across the US, most recently at Vaughn Correctional Facility where prisoners demanding better conditions took over a wing of the prison. In August and September of 2016, 22 mothers held at an immigration detention center in Pennsylvania went on hunger strike to protest the ongoing incarceration of themselves and their children. Last September’s national prisoner strike involved at least 29 prisons in 12 states. The strike was organized by the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) with support from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), and a wide variety of anti-prison organizations. Tens of thousands of prisoners participated in the strike, affecting facilities across the country.
Especially as Trump and Sessions push for even more criminalization of targeted communities, it essential that we pay close attention to and amplify resistance inside US jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers.