Interview: IWOC and GG/GO on incarceration and class struggle

On the occasion of the congress of the CIT / IWC in Parma, we had the opportunity to interview two comrades, one from the US and one from Germany, regarding the prisoners’ struggles. The IWOC , Imprisoned Workers Oraganizing Committee, is the branch of the IWW that deals with the jailed workers; the GG / BO, Gefangenen-Gewerkshaft / Bundesweite Organization, is a union of prisoners born in Germany in 2014.

Prison work is widespread in both these countries; in the US case, then, we are facing a prison system founded since its inception, as we shall see, on forced labor. Recognizing that workers-prisoners are full-fledged workers, these unions have consistently developed instruments of analysis and struggle to intervene in these situations.

Over the last few decades, with the phenomena of the so-called “war on drugs” and the various “emergencies” of security, there has been a revival of mass imprisonment policies as a device for social control, just think of the decades-long explosion of prison population in the United States.

Furthermore, the deployment of this disciplinary device is part of a historical phase in which the changes to the production systems have transformed part of the labor force into surplus labor-goods which must be stored and controlled in some way. This phenomenon joins, in the case of the United States in an obvious way but also in many other contexts, with the racialization of sectors of the proletariat that had already been set aside with respect to the enjoyment of the old social-democratic social pact and which were then hard hit by the liquidation of the same.

As for a European country like Germany, which is often portrayed as a country with a strong Welfarist system and of which the Hartz IV system is often modeled, a minimum income in exchange for compulsory labor in very poor conditions, not to notice how the development of a prison-industrial system is nothing but the logical corollary to these solutions.

It is therefore necessary, for those who recognize themselves in an anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary-unionist line, to consider the existence of millions of workers who find themselves working in servile conditions, in some cases slavery, being imprisoned and considering this as a logical consequence of the way of capitalist production and not its distortion.

A fundamental question that is addressed in the article is the sense of an economic struggle within a total institution such as a prison and how to reconcile this struggle with a revolutionary and abolitionist perspective of the galleys themselves.

Q: What is IWOC and what is its history?

The IWOC was created in 2014 by members of the IWW in contact with imprisoned members of the Free Alabama Movement, and with the black anarchist Lorenzo Erwin. It was born as a committee to facilitate the formation of union sections inside the prisons from outside and to help the prisoners by sending material, letters, facilitating family visits, setting up networks of mutual support.

Q: In your documents is used the expression “prison-industrial complex”, “prison-industrial complex”, what is the meaning of this expression and where does it derive?

We base our analysis on the fact that the prison industry that exists today in the US is the continuation of slavery in past centuries; the examples on which this analysis was based are the prisons in Louisiana and in other slave states. In these countries, after the end of slavery, the production of cotton continued through the use of prisoners , the state has become the guarantor of this continuity and has taken the place of the old landowners. The existence of the prison-industrial complex has therefore intertwined since birth with the racialization and maintenance of white supremacy in the United States, characteristics that are fundamental to US capitalism itself.

D: with the war on drugs started and spread in the seventies and eighties there was an explosion of mass incarceration, on the other with extremely racist characters, what can you tell us about these issues?

The war on drugs began by hitting the activists initially: just a couple of years ago an old member of the Nixon administration wrote clearly in a book that they had decided to use the war on drugs to hit the militants. They associated heroin with black militants and marijuana with white ones, increasing the penalties for the possession of both of these substances, incarcerating many militants thanks to these new laws. Now, to say, in states like California, marijuana is legal, but there are people who have spent tens of years in prison for possession of this substance, including many militants, politicians and trade unions. Some drugs were linked, as we said, to racialized groups: for example, cocaine was considered a drug for whites while the crack[which is always a derivative of cocaine, but cheaper and with more devastating effects in the short term, ndt] has been associated with blacks and the poor, but for the possession of crack the penalties are double compared to those for possession of cocaine . There is therefore a strong racist and class element in the war on drugs which has meant that this specifically targeted black communities and sent members of these communities to prison for decades.

D: In the US there is also the question of prisons managed by private individuals, a phenomenon that is absent in many European countries or in any case new. How does the presence of this type of prisons fit in with the question of the prison-industrial complex?

There are a lot of private prisons in the United States. The Obama administration had declared that it would close them, but this decision involved only six federal prisons, but the prisoners were simply moved to other federal prisons. There are corporations, such as McDonalds and Bank of America, which have contracts to manage and extract profits from prisons through the work of inmates and thanks to agreements made with the states or directly with the prisons themselves. The prisoners who go out simply will not find work and this despite being told that to make prisoners work serves to educate them, give them skills and reintegrate them. The prison-industrial system stores, literally, excess labor force allowing to have an industrial reserve army for the private sector as well as for the public sector. Through the use of the work of prisoners, who work for a very low salary, which are blackmailed and that are many thanks to the mass incarceration policies of the last decades, the working class as a whole is attacked, depreciating the cost of labor and imposing therefore, low wages also for workers who are not in prison, these are told “if you do not work for the minimum wage, for what we give you, we will work in your place the prisoners”. When there are strikes of prisoners-workers these do not show up at work, thus rotting the crops in the fields, sending the food that has to be worked in the prison factories down, in these prison factories the prisoner-workers take care of everything from production to maintenance, so refusing to work can actually block them. Obviously a protest of this kind exposes the prisoners to retaliation, can receive further convictions, be refused probation, be transferred or placed in isolation. External support is therefore necessary.

Q: I imagine that in addition to this kind of retaliation given by the condition of extreme blackmail of these proletarians there is also the problem of divisions between them, with phenomena such as gangs that in fact make it possible to maintain order by dividing the prison population, racism and sexism among the imprisoned prisoners and so on. How do you undermine this system?

During the hunger strike in Pelican Bay [1] they broke the barriers of race, the prisoners made a common document, an agreement between prisoners, in which they decided to stop the mutual attacks while they were fighting, for the duration of the same . They won. In the IWOC, as in the IWW we have certain cardinal points, basic principles and the members must act in accordance with these principles. Anyone who joins the organization knows that there are white, black, latinos, transsexuals, knows that no forms of suprematism will be accepted. The differences, the same differences that make it possible to divide and control the prisoners, must be set aside for a greater good, from the moment in which struggles are developed that affect everyone, who have an immediate material outlet,

Q: Can you tell us about the GGBO in Germany?

GGBO: We were born in 2014 as a local union of prisoners in Berlin but we have expanded throughout Germany. In Germany, a significant part of the prison population is employed as a labor force. These workers mainly do low-skilled jobs, for example they work to produce packaging for supermarkets, but there are also prisons in southern Germany where large companies invest in training and prisoners build turbines for airplanes. The prisons themselves go from companies and are proposed by leveraging the low wages, the lack of social coverage, the fact that companies can set up ad hoc training programs. So the range of jobs covered by the German prison-industrial complex is wide ranging from low-skilled jobs to specialized ones. In other cases, prisoners work directly for the government, for example lately they have been used as labor for the construction of a government building in Berlin. We want to abolish prisons but we think that a fight for a minimum wage for prisoners is necessary. If you talk to a lot of people and tell them you work for the abolition of prisons it’s hard to establish a dialogue, they look at you like you’re crazy, but if you tell them you’re working to make the prisoners get paid more for their work, they have a pension and better conditions, I answer you that are things that make sense, you can establish a dialogue. To abolish prisons we must change society, this is our goal, but in the meantime we are faced with the material needs of prisoners and we can not ignore them.

Q: I do not think this is a big contradiction, on the other hand, as trade unionists we fight in the workplace but we want to abolish wage labor. I’m in a union because I want better working conditions for myself and for my workmates, but I want to abolish the system of wage labor, it’s the same thing as the struggles of those in prison who want to immediately improve their material conditions but he knows that it is necessary to abolish the prison itself. Are there any contradictions in this? Yes, but we live in a society, we live a life of contradictions.

GGBO: Some comrades argue that if you improve the conditions of life people will not rise, but we can not stand here screaming how ugly the world is. We organize our struggles, organize ourselves among ourselves.

IWOC: We, too, as IWOC have clearly written that we want to abolish prisons. But we have clearly written that we want to abolish, for example, isolation because the practice of isolation, which sometimes takes years, directly impacts on the lives of prisoners and this is a necessity that has been clearly expressed by the prisoners themselves. As the workers in the workplace are the only ones who decide how to conduct a fight, the same applies to prisoners, because in the end it is they who know how they can build a support network inside the prison, how to involve other prisoners, they are they take risks and suffer repercussions during the struggles. They can be heavy repercussions: one can stay in prison for ten more years if he has fought, the question may be life and death.

Q: We can therefore imagine that in the United States, but also in Germany, companies exert pressure on the government to have more severe penalties, more prisons, more crimes and more police, in order to feed the prison-industrial complex from which they profit .

GGBO: In Germany the crime rate is falling from year to year but despite this in the Land of Bavaria there has been a further tightening of the police laws, which rationally is a contradiction. But just as politicians push on having more laws to show themselves to be harsh with crime before the electorate, industries are pushing for more prisoners to increase profits.

IWOC: That’s exactly what we’ve seen happening in the United States over the last few decades. To all social problems the answers given were based on more prisons, more laws, more police. Social spending has been cut in terms of health care costs, education, and spending on prisons and surveillance has increased. Even when inside the prisons the contradictions have exploded in forms of revolts or in the form of violence between prisoners or self-harm, the response has been based on more repression by placing more guards than imposing a medicalization, making extensive use of psychotropic drugs on the prison population. The same cut in mental health resources meant that psychic suffering ended up more easily imprisoned,

D: Also in the United States it is important to consider that the District Attonery figure is a figure that is nominated by popular elections, just like the sheriffs in the counties. I imagine that these political figures are showing themselves to be harder with crime in order to be able to make propaganda and get more votes and secure their careers.

IWOC: Yes, this is one of the biggest issues to be addressed. As well as that of the militarization of the police: the army has spent the last years in war, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, evolving its equipment and now it is passing this equipment to the police departments. On the occasion of some protests against the Ku Klux Klan demonstrations, we saw the police from small rural towns in the south equipped with armored vehicles, the same used by the army, in military clothing. This was seen during the Standing Rock protests against the construction of a pipeline: the police, both local and federal, were equipped as if in war, rubber bullets, stun grenades, etc. were used.

Q: If I remember well a few years ago, Obama said that he would block the militarization of the police but it was not so, the militarization went ahead. It is a tendency that the federal administration has no intention of stopping and it is shown that in this there is no difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party

IWOC: There is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. Many people were enthusiastic when Obama was elected but the black revolutionaries immediately said that white supremacism assumes different forms and that Obama was part of that same system. On the other hand, he has deported more migrants than any other president, has widely used drones and bombed various countries. His supporters claim that he tried to give health care to everyone, but they forget that he bombed other countries, which destroyed families of migrants by deporting their members. We know that Republicans and Democrats are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, they are the interests of the ruling class, of capitalism, even if Trump has openly given voice to fascist groups,


This is an edited machine translation of an interview conducted by Umanita Nova

Photo: Umanita Nova