Earlier this year, Florida prison inmates took part in a statewide labor strike to protest forced labor that they view as a modern form of slavery. The strike was just the latest action in a growing movement to organize inmates and for some, to abolish the prison system altogether. In order to maintain the pressure, incarcerated workers have also announced another wave of strike actions set to begin later this summer on August 21.
Today’s inmate organizing has a powerful precedent. During the early 1970s, the prisoners’ union movement counted tens of thousands of members in prisons from California to North Carolina. This activism was inspired by Black Power organizing as well as decades of agitation by both Black and white prisoners to expand their legal rights. But there was one Southern inmate union in particular, in the least unionized state in the country, that forced legal battles about whether prisoners have the right to free speech and assembly.
At its height in the early 1970s, the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union collected union cards from more than 5,000 prisoners, roughly half of the state’s total inmate population.
But the struggle to expand prisoners’ rights to free speech and assembly received a heavy blow with the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Jones v. The North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union. The Jones decision all but ensured the demise of the North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union and for awhile, it seemed that this history was lost.
However, during the last decade, largely as a result of growing awareness about mass incarceration, and political organizing that identifies with prison abolition, there has been renewed scholarly interest in prisoner activism.
Over the course of several months, Jonathan Michels spoke to three North Carolina veterans of the prisoners’ union struggle. You can read more about the history of the NCPLU, and the first installment of this three-part interview series here. Today, we present the remarks of Robbie Purner, an NCPLU organizer who worked diligently from the outside to support incarcerated worker resistance.
Introduction by Jonathan Michels:
It was a trip to visit her boyfriend at a Virginia prison that motivated Robbie Purner to work with inmates. The deplorable conditions and the draconian oversight that she witnessed that day were powerful enough to shift Purner’s focus away from her divinity studies at Duke University and towards her real “calling”: advocating for prison reform.
Purner believes her commitment to prison reform was guided more by morality than religious doctrine or political ideology. She advocated for prisoners to have more of a say over their lives because she thought it was the right thing to do, not because she wanted to emulate the teachings of Jesus Christ or initiate a revolution for workers’ control.
Purner’s prison advocacy work enabled her to secure a $14,000 grant with few strings attached and she intended to make good use of the money. Purner connected with Chuck Eppinette and Debbie Mailman and the two of them piqued her interest in the potential of an inmates’ union as a way to push for sustained prison reform.
After the North Carolina union’s first organizing drive ended in failure and its fate seemed uncertain, Purner stepped in with the grant money and offered to help restart the union. The union’s president, Wayne Brooks, was incredulous but to his surprise, Purner promised to hand over the grant money to the convicts so long as they agreed that it would be the prisoners themselves who maintained control.
The prisoners accepted her offer. Overnight, Purner became the union’s lead union organizer on the outside, handling the media and serving as a liaison between the inmates and their families. The following is an edited transcript of my interviews with Purner in December 2017 and January 2018.
Excerpted transcription from interview with Rob Purner:
The entire board of directors was at Central Prison [in Raleigh, North Carolina]. The reason the men chose the board members to be what they called "long-termers" was to be able to meet within the complex to develop the goals, statement of prisoners' rights, and to coordinate legal activity with Debbie Mailman and Chuck.
Wayne Brooks, Vernon Rich and Donald Morgan were the three most active board members. They had very strong opinions about the fact that prison administrators and guards controlled prisoners by dividing them against each other racially. Due to the violence that had been occurring within the California prisons after the formation of that prisoners’ union, they wanted this to be an interracial board of directors.
The women, however, wanted nothing to do with the North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union.
So many of them were imprisoned due to domestic violence issues and rape issues. They were further traumatized by the guards. Why would they believe that men, even fellow prisoners, would care about their rights? Men had caused most of them to be where they were.
It was really crazy times. I think I slept about three hours a night and the rest of the time I was working, organizing or meeting with families.
I kept all the records on the prisoners and where they were. I'm talking about file boxes and file boxes, all typed on a computer: the guy's name, his prison number, his address, where he was. You have to remember there was no Internet. Electric typewriters were the new thing.
Prisoners were writing to the outside union office: "I was illegally convicted." Each complaint, letter or inquiry was discussed with the legal team.
Simultaneously, the inmates were directing me to try to get their cause known to the larger public. I'm going to regional meetings and radio interviews. I'm in touch with 60 Minutes.
It was a very, very unpopular thing to be doing. Back then, due to what had happened in Soledad and the other prisons in California, there was very negative press about the danger and violence posed by prisoners demanding any rights.
“Chuck and Jim both encouraged me to remember that organizing is not simple. A lot of people have died to preserve freedom and human rights. It's an ongoing battle. There will be advances and then retreats. Advances and then retreats.”
In my opinion, and many others at that time, the union was never a threat to internal prison security, the government or the nation.
We were talking about and organizing to protect basic human rights. No matter who you are or what you've done, a human being doesn't deserve to be treated like an animal. Beaten, burned, put in solitary confinement. No medical care. In today’s language it is called torture.
When Wayne, on behalf of the board, filed the incorporation papers, we already had over 1,000 prisoners signed up for membership with the union. The prison administration had no idea what we had been doing. It took them totally by surprise.But once the prison officials understood the existence of the union and figured out its key players, everything changed.
Bulk mailings of the union newsletter were not allowed or delivered to the members. The newsletters sent to individual members were returned to us, marked as non-deliverable. The cost to update our prisoner database and re-send the newsletters was extremely expensive and time-consuming.
Then they started to transfer key board members as well as union agents from the various county prison units. Prisoners would be put in segregation, approved visitors were denied entrance without notice.
The same tactics are still being used. After the national prisoners’ strike in 2016, the prisons where actions occurred were in total shutdown. All the inside, prisoner organizers were in solitary confinement. Nobody knew where they were or how to find them.
It's one of the reasons why I was against filing the lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Corrections. The original lawsuit was based on the right to assembly and the right to have a union and wages.
"We were talking about and organizing to protect basic human rights. No matter who you are or what you've done, a human being doesn't deserve to be treated like an animal. Beaten, burned, put in solitary confinement. No medical care. In today’s language it is called torture."
Well, North Carolina was one of the most anti-union states in the country. Still is. If free people are not allowed to have unions, how are prisoners to have unions?
I was really concerned that the few gains we had achieved for the humane treatment of prisoners, would be lost. In my opinion, Jones did that and it also destroyed the entire prisoners' rights movement nationwide. But it wasn't my call.
That was what was so different about the North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union. In California, because the Black Panthers were running it, there was a very organized Panther group on the outside. Many decisions made by the California Prisoners' Union were made by people who were not in prison but were ex-cons. We did not have that support group of ex-cons and their families.
In North Carolina, all of the decisions about the union came from the members through the board of directors. Looking at where things are now with the prison system, I don't think there was a window of time that was wide enough, from a legal perspective, to forestall the privatization of the prison system. I don't know how anyone could have affected or prevented Bill Clinton's draconian changes to the law that led to the explosion in the prison population. The problems are so huge and so intermeshed.
I got an article on my phone today that some prison administrators have decided that prisoners don't have the right to meet with their families in person. They're pushing this regulation that the only way you can meet with your family is on video. And guess what? The video time costs about $12 per minute. Where is this happening? In the South.
If I sound discouraged, I am. I'm extremely discouraged. Chuck and Jim both encouraged me to remember that organizing is not simple. A lot of people have died to preserve freedom and human rights. It's an ongoing battle. There will be advances and then retreats. Advances and then retreats.