SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Violence broke out at South Carolina's Lee Correctional Institution this spring. Seven inmates died in rioting in there in April; 22 more ended up hospitalized. It took nearly seven hours for guards to control the situation. And that delay, or alleged inaction, was part of the reason a group of prisoners has organized a nationwide strike.
We're joined now from New York by Nicole Lewis of The Marshall Project. She has been covering the strike. Ms. Lewis, thanks very much for being with us.
NICOLE LEWIS: Thanks so much for having me.
SIMON: People who organized this strike - prisoners - say that the violence at Lee was a result of the conditions there and in U.S. prisons generally.
LEWIS: That's right. So they're saying that the seven deaths of inmates at Lee Correctional were a result of overcrowding in the prisons, as well as the prison officials' sort of tendency to place gang members from rival gangs within the same housing unit, as well as other issues like heat issues and food issues and just generally poor conditions.
SIMON: Yeah. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that a lot of people listening to this might not have any sympathy whatsoever to prisoners. They feel they've, you know, often hurt somebody, and they've been convicted. And they're lucky to get three meals a day, however they taste.
LEWIS: That's right. And I would say, a lot of the inmates that I've spoken to, or a lot of the organizers that I've spoken to, as well as some of the incarcerated organizers, recognize that there's - what they're calling a stigma against them. They recognize that until people have a bit more sympathy or empathy or at least a better understanding of the kinds of inhumane conditions they say they're facing that nothing will change for them - that what they really need is a populace that can go out and vote and make concerted efforts towards the kinds of criminal justice reforms that they're asking for.
SIMON: Well - but how do you contend, again, with the idea among taxpayers that a prisoner is lucky to get whatever he or she receives.
LEWIS: Well, you know, I spoke with one inmate who goes by the name of Swift Justice, and he's been incarcerated in Alabama for over 20 years. And he, you know, made clear this point that taxpayers are actually funding what happens inside of the prison. And so they have a vested interest in making sure that prison facilities are well run, that there's a focus on rehabilitation, that people who come into prison don't then just leave prison only to come right back. He sees it as a sort of waste of taxpayer money.
SIMON: How do prisoners go on strike? What do they withhold that would be so valuable to the institution?
LEWIS: The goal was for inmates to not show up for work and to not spend money in the prison commissary, as well as, if possible, to refuse to eat or drink.
SIMON: Now, how does that reach the prison administration or the taxpayers?
LEWIS: So many of the departments of corrections that I've reached out to over the span of the past week have essentially said that there are no work stoppages happening in their prisons - that they have not seen demonstrations. And so there's, on the one hand, certainly some truth to that fact, as well as an interest in sort of not spreading the message any further that their prison is somehow out of control or inmates are disobeying their orders.
SIMON: How do prisoners who want better conditions contend with the criticism that - for example, at the uprising at Lee in South Carolina, the inmates who died there were stabbed and slashed by other prisoners. Do prisoners really blame guards for not stopping them from committing violence? You don't want to kill someone...
LEWIS: You don't kill anyone.
SIMON: ...You don't pick up a shiv and put it in someone. Yeah.
LEWIS: That's right. You know, there are many people who are violent criminals, but at the same time, there are many more people who are in prison for a nonviolent crime. And so what do you say to those people who are behind bars who don't want to harm anyone feeling as though they're unsafe and that the general public has no idea what's actually happening?
SIMON: Do the strikers have a goal?
LEWIS: I think so. I mean, they've published a list of 10 demands that have been circulating around. The top two are an immediate change to the kinds of, you know, inhumane conditions that they're facing, as well as to be paid the prevailing wage in whatever state that they're incarcerated. And then the rest of the goals are sort of a mix of criminal justice reform issues that we've seen sort of percolate around the country.
SIMON: Nicole Lewis with The Marshall Project, thanks so much for being with us.
LEWIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.