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Fighting the 13th

Tulsa activist Peter Von Gotcher helps organize prison labor strikes across the country

Over two million Americans are currently incarcerated, and the word “Attica” means a great deal to many of them. On September 9, 1971, nearly half of the 2,200 prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York rioted and took 42 staff members hostage. 

Last September, the ever-smoldering ashes of Attica were fanned to full inferno on the 45th anniversary of the uprising. The largest prison labor strike in U.S. history took place across 24 states, with 24,000 prisoners participating. Peter Von Gotcher, a Tulsa-based activist and organizer, played a vital role.

Von Gotcher is a member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and has been interviewed by ABC New Zealand and the BBC in relation to his prison strike involvement. Al Jazeera has expressed interest in documenting his Southern speaking tours, which are funded by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). 

Von Gotcher has the kind of rough edged appearance some would call “sketchy.” Though known to post knife-fighting tutorials on his Facebook feed, the tattooed and bearded anarchist emitted genuine warmth as he toured me through the Dennis R. Neill Equality center and found a place for us in the library. 

Von Gotcher served six months on a prison yard in 2003 for assault and battery on a police officer. He uses Greyhound for traveling to his speaking tours, and can quickly spot fresh ex-prisoners at the bus stations. Prisoners are often given a bus ticket upon release.  

“They’ll be wearing khaki pants and a white t-shirt, or a flannel, and all of their belongings in a plastic or mesh laundry bag, and sometimes they have flip flops,” Von Gotcher said. “I’ve been in prison and I can catch that very lost, ‘What the hell am I doing,’ new-to-the-world expression. But sometimes I’ll say, ‘What yard you come off of?’ and they’ll just say, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”

He often uses these interactions to gauge the conditions in specific prisons, and to pass out literature that explains the movement to amend the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “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 exception in this clause has allowed what Von Gotcher sees as slave labor to flourish in American prisons. 

IWOC, in addition to groups like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Free Alabama Movement, is a member of a coalition aiding the nationwide prison strikes. Their common goal is to remove the criminal exception from the 13th Amendment. 

“We leave the demands up to the inmates in the different prisons,” Von Gotcher said. “We’re fighting against the 13th here on the outside, but on the inside, they’re just fighting for basic things.” 

Those basic things include access to necessities like toilet paper, or the ability to do their laundry more than once a week. A central demand is fair pay, as some American prisoners are paid as little as 17 cents an hour.

Actions taken by inmates run the gamut of protest tactics—property destruction, hunger strikes, and refusal to work have been employed across the country. Prisoners are uniting across gang and racial lines in pursuit of their common goals. 

“You’ve got dudes with swastika tattoos fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with black, Mexican and communist dudes,” Von Gotcher said.

Outside, people like Von Gotcher have formed a robust support network. 

“We’ll get inmates with medical issues in touch with insurance companies or specialists,” he said. 

In addition to this, they will relay messages between prisoners and their families, and will mount calling campaigns to voice concerns of maltreatment directly to prison staff. 

“We call that ‘phone zapping,’” Von Gotcher said. 

“We kind of see ourselves as the only way to stop riots, by convincing prisoners to use their labor instead of violent action to create pressure.”

Guards at Alabama’s William C. Holman Correctional Facility joined prisoners in the strike to protest overcrowding after one of their fellow officers was murdered by one of the 200 inmates he had been left alone to supervise. 

Still, some striking prisoners have reported retaliation by prison staff. 

“Whether they kick in your cell door in the middle of the night and throw you in isolation without a way for you to tell your loved ones…whether it’s taking away your ‘good time’, which will extend your prison sentence…these are ways they control prisoners,” Von Gotcher said. 

Other alleged tactics involve beatings and “pigeon feeding,” a sort of psychological torture where prisoners are served increasingly smaller amounts of food.

Illustration done from prison by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC)At least one prisoner, Kinetic Justice Amun, is still serving time in solitary confinement for his role in the September 2016 strikes. The conditions in the prisons weigh heavy on their residents, and Von Gotcher said he’s become a suicide hotline for many of the inmates with whom he’s corresponded. 

Proponents of prison labor have claimed it gives prisoners a chance to rehabilitate themselves through hard work and learn technical skills from which they can profit on the outside. Opponents are quick to point out that most ex-cons rarely find work after release. A 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found
that 76 percent of the 700 former inmates surveyed reported difficulty in finding work. 

“Imagine if these prisoners could put money back,” Von Gotcher said. “They would be able to take care of probation, get a nice set of clothes for job interviews, and rebuild bridges with their families. Instead, they’re given a bus ticket, staying at shelters like John 3:16, going to Iron Gate for their meals, and digging through donation boxes to find clothes that never fit.”

Additionally, the absence of workplace regulations in prisons increases the risk of on the job injury. While an ex-con may have a hard time finding work, a maimed and disabled one may find it impossible. 

When most people think of prison labor they imagine someone in an orange jumpsuit stamping a license plate. In actuality, the person in orange is packaging your Starbucks Christmas blend, processing the beef for your quarter pounder, or sewing the uniforms for American soldiers. They’re also performing skilled labor.

“They’re taking your jobs,” Von Gotcher said. “If I was a welder, I’d be making around 20 bucks an hour…they’re giving those jobs to prisoners for 10 dollars a month.”

Government entity UNICOR employs 22,560 inmates, making them a larger American employer than any Fortune 500 company. In the wake of the Great Recession, many former government jobs are now being given to prisoners for bottom dollar. Roadkill cleanup, government building maintenance, and a variety of other public service jobs are on the table. Thousands of California inmates have been used to fight the state’s forest fires.

President Trump was elected in part for his stated commitment to protecting American jobs from migrants and outsourcing, but private prison stocks soared in tandem with his campaign prospects. 

“Your job isn’t going to a Mexican,” Von Gotcher said. “It’s going to some convicted coke dealer in California.” 

Oklahoma prisoners did not participate in last September’s historic strike, but they may be involved this year, though that’s all Von Gotcher is willing to say at this moment. 

“Oklahoma is a huge prison state, and we have one of the biggest women’s prison populations in the country,” Von Gotcher said. “There’s not a single prisoner I’ve talked to that doesn’t know about how bad Oklahoma’s prisons are… So, to me, the prisoner strike, and abolition movement have just as much to do with Oklahoma as anywhere else.” 

Von Gotcher won’t say what prisoners have planned in Oklahoma, but the groups he works with have just announced plans for an even bigger nationwide strike that will take place on August 19. It will be held in tandem with the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights march on Washington, D.C.

I asked Von Gotcher what benefit, if any, there was in providing foreknowledge of the strike to prison staff. 

“It puts pressure on them, and lets them see this big ball rolling at them down the tube…and it lets them know they better get out of the way.”

For more from Mitch, read his piece on local comedian Vanessa Dawn.