The Lancaster County Prison, originally built in 1851.

On Sept. 17, a rally was held outside the Lancaster County Government Center in Lancaster, Pa., to demand changes to the local prison system. The event included representatives from CRASH, an umbrella activist organization; The Workers Gazette, a local socialist publication; the NAACP; Party for Socialism and Liberation; Socialist Resurgence; and local faith groups, as well as people with incarcerated family members.

The situation in the Lancaster County Prison is dire. With no air conditioning through the summer, and three deaths as a result of COVID-19 (in cramped conditions which aid the spread of the virus), people who have been locked up by the state suffer needlessly. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human rights violations in prisons, which are integral to capitalism and state control of working people.

Andy Barns met with one of the organizers of the event, John Maina of CRASH, to discuss their goals and prospects in the struggle for prison reform and ultimately prison abolition.

Andy Barns: Tell me about your organization, CRASH.

John Maina: CRASH, standing for Collective Resistance Acting in Solidarity for Humanity, was founded in May 2020. We are an umbrella organization that brings grassroots movements, nonprofits, and community leaders together to form actionable and strategic plans to end some of the biggest issues that haunt and plague Lancaster County. Our mission/vision is to end law enforcement entanglements with the society, including making sure the police are not the first step to solve community problems, but rather have the community be self-sustaining and not use the police to solve all problems, such as mental health, addiction, and individual financial crisis.

AB: How is an intersectional perspective integral to CRASH’s vision? How might the police abolition, anti-prison, anti-poverty, and labor struggles come together to create something better for the working class?

JM: Intersectionality is extremely important and is what drives CRASH. The voiceless look different, and come from different walks of life. The marginalized understand better then someone who is privileged, or who serves the status quo, about what’s wrong with the system. So getting those marginalized voices together in a room is very important.

AB: What place does labor have in the fight against police brutality and the prison industrial complex?

JM: Labor activism is one of our biggest priorities over the next few years. When you live in a society that doesn’t provide fair wages and is open to exploitation by the employer, it opens the door to what the status quo will call “criminality.” If you actually provide fair wages and good jobs, the community will be better off. The less time we spend criminalizing people, the more resources we can use to invest in the community.

AB: What’s next in the struggle for prison abolition?

JM: Community outreach and education. Educating people who don’t understand why this system is broken. Educating people on the conditions inside the prison. There is no air conditioning, they are locked down for an exorbitant number of hours, and this is a struggle facing people who are voiceless. In this country, once we arrest you, we really do violate your constitutional rights, especially your Eighth Amendment right [banning cruel and unusual punishment]. That way we can make the next demonstration at the next prison board meeting have greater impact.

AB: What kinds of reforms are you fighting for?

JM: “Reform” is a kind of curse word to us. What we are really struggling for is a structural change to the system, for revolution. When you look at policing, corrections, the courts, reform over the years isn’t very effective. With the court system reforms might be different, only if you get legislation pushed through the local, state, and federal jurisdictions comprehensively. With the other two arms of law enforcement, the police and the prisons, reform has required an intense struggle over the course of 400 years. Despite that, these systems only benefit the state and the wealthy.

Right now, we are looking to get people, who are involved and activated, in understanding what that might look like. People who are afraid of slogans like “abolish the police” need to understand that we are also looking to build something new and different. What is going on now is completely unacceptable.

Today we are going in and asking for a new facility [which can comfortably house the inmates in humane conditions]. That doesn’t really align with our goals, but it fixes a human rights crisis in the short term. Our long-term goal is to end incarceration as we know it. Our long-term goal is to turn policing into a unit that only deals with violent crime, and limiting law enforcement’s reach into the community. The reason many marginalized communities have so much contact with the police is because they are lacking basic social services. The government, at a local, state, and federal level invests in this one thing and that’s policing.

AB: Its about control, rather than helping people?

JM: Correct. Also in the short term we seek pro-bono mental health evaluations, as well as just getting for word out and getting education out. The long-term goal is to take down the system piece by piece.

After about an hour, the demonstration moved inside to the County Commissioners’ meeting, where prison officials provided their reports to the commission, generally downplaying the severity of the conditions of the prison. A reporter with local Lancaster news asked if the autopsies of three inmates would be publicly released, but the prison official was ambivalent.

Maina presented a petition of 4406 signatures to the board demanding a change in the county prison, with full support of the demonstrators. The County Commissioners received the petition, and acknowledged support for a new prison facility to house the inmates. Funding troubles were blamed for the lack of a new facility. We finished our interview after the meeting was held:

AB: What was your impression of the county commissioner meeting?

JM: I’ve never attended one before, but it’s a business meeting, right? So as a business meeting they are going to report on themselves in a positive light. Moving past that and still delivering on our message was important.

AB: Tell me more about the petition CRASH created.

JM: The signatures were to make a change at the prison. We want air conditioning. We want heat. We want them to have access to good food, to proper health care, and safety against the global pandemic. That cannot be done at King St. [the current prison facility]. That needs to be done at a new facility. So what we did today was we spoke for the voiceless, and make the first part of this actionable plan a reality. The petition was signed by 4406 people, from all 50 U.S. states, and 12 countries. Now that we have our demands out there, we know who our targets are, and we can move to phase two of the action plan.

Members of CRASH plan to meet in the coming weeks with local activists and union organizers to move forward with the struggle against mass incarceration.