Workers Inside, Workers Outside: IWW Organizers Fight Prisoner Exploitation in MN!
By John O’Reilly
The Organizer sat down with Sophia, an organizer with the IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, to talk about organizing the working class behind bars and the particular struggles of incarcerated women.
Q: What is IWOC and why do you organize prisoners into the IWW?
Sophia: We began when prisoners organizing in the Free Alabama Movement reached out to the IWW to support work stoppages inside. A common misconception is that IWOC members on the outside are organizing people inside. We support the self-activity of prisoners organizing to change their conditions and make the prison system untenable by building collective power and class consciousness. We have over 800 inside members nationally. As people on the outside we provide support and resources to those putting their lives on the line inside.
We believe fighting the prison system is an important arena of struggle against racialized capitalism. We also believe in working class solidarity and see prisons destroying the social fabric of our communities and families. We are explicitly abolitionist, meaning we don’t believe in reforming prisons but abolishing them altogether. IWOC is taking the IWW back to its roots of multiracial organizing at the front lines of wage slavery.
Q: What kinds of IWOC organizing are prisoners and supporters doing in the state of Minnesota?
Sophia: Unlike other states where we witnessed massive mobilization for the national prison strike on September 9th, our inside organizers in Minnesota are still in the initial stages of building organization. The outside committee continues to struggle with mail censorship which has made communication with our inside members difficult. We’ve started to more heavily rely upon phone communication for this reason. We’re also producing podcasts amplifying the voices and analysis of prisoners on conditions inside. This has allowed us to continue to build connections while we’re under heavy surveillance by the Department of Corrections.
Q: What’s the next step for prisoner organizing in the IWW?
Sophia: We have a national conference coming up this spring that will allow us to share best practices across locals and solidify conversations about national structure. I think the priority continues to be how we orient to local organizing while recognizing we don’t have functioning outside committees in all the places where we have members inside. We are still reflecting on the implications of the national prison strike. Many of the most prominent strike leaders such as Siddique Abdullah Hassan have faced intense repression as a result of their participation.
Locally, we’re working to change the composition of our outside committee to include more former prisoners and family members. Once people are released it’s often a survival game, so organizing is a challenge before people get back on their feet. We’ve also had several people get violated and sent back. We’re building stronger connections with our inside organizers’ family members. Finally, we’re determining how to respond to ongoing surveillance by the DOC.
Q: What kinds of specific challenges do women prisoners experience under our capitalist prison system?
Sophia: Women prisoners face particular challenges inside. While they make up a small percentage of those locked up, women, specifically Black women, are the fastest-growing segment of those incarcerated. Many women are locked up for defending themselves against their abusers and many are mothers with primary custody over their children prior to their incarceration. Gender-specific healthcare is another major concern. While the demands women are agitated around may vary, the organizing methods and strategy are largely the same. We saw mass participation from women inside during the national prison strike given their relatively small percentage of the overall prison population.
There’s one women’s prison in Minnesota in Shakopee. Twin Cities IWOC continues to make connections there but have struggled because cold call letter writing is much less successful than outreach within our networks, the majority of which are male prisoners.