Local activists camped out for 10 days across from the Gainesville Work Camp in September to protest mass incarceration.

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Photos by Marcelo Rondon and Cole Thomas.

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Logan Marie, 26, and Kaithleen Hernandez, 23, run to stop a truck carrying inmates from leaving the work camp. Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

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The activists used megaphones for noise demonstrations to reach and encourage inmates at the work camp. Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

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Kaithleen Hernandez, 23, and Logan Marie, 26, confront an Alachua County Sheriff’s Deputy when asked to remain outside the camp’s property. Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

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Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

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The main tents the activists operated from and spent most of their time in when they weren’t sleeping or chanting. Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

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Kaithleen Hernandez, 23, is also running for the Alachua County Water and Soil Conservation seat in District 2. Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

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Some of the tents the activists slept in throughout the strike. Photo by Cole Thomas.

 

As the sun broke the horizon Wednesday, Sept. 5, Kaithleen Hernandez stared across a stretch of University Avenue. Five security guards huddled by the entrance to the Gainesville Work Camp, which is about five miles away from the University of Florida. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, the work camp is one of the largest state prisons that provides rehabilitation services, but this often comes in the form of manual labor. Save for the occasional passing car, the only sound is the hum of mosquitos from the nearby Newnans Lake.

Hernandez gripped her megaphone as one of the security guards held up binoculars. The morning before, the 23-year-old Civic Media Center coordinator and other activists ran in front of a truck that was transporting inmates to a work site. The blockade made the truck turn around and stopped work for 45 minutes. The activists stayed the night on a strip of public land across from the work camp, intent on blocking the morning truck again. Their tens and signs were still covered in dew from that night’s rain.

“We see you, we love you,” Hernandez said into the megaphone so the prisoners who were being transported early in the morning could hear.

Members of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) camped out across the work camp for 10 days in early September to oppose mass incarceration, protest in support of the prisoners and show solidarity with a national prison strike. IWOC is a prisoner-led branch of the radical labor union Industrial Workers of the World and seeks to unionize incarcerated people.

The nationwide strike started in response to an April 15 prison riot at Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina, during which seven inmates were stabbed to death. The riot began in retaliation to degrading living conditions and neglectful prison guards; the corresponding nationwide strike called for improvements to prison conditions, like adding air conditioning units and drafting policies that would recognize prisoners’ humanity.

The strike’s goals included adopting a living wage for labor and ending prison slavery; rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act, a triad that makes it harder for inmates to file lawsuits in federal court by forcing them to go through the prison’s grievance procedure first; funding rehabilitation services at state prisons; ending discriminatory practices in charging, sentencing and parole; reinstating Pell grants; and restoring voting rights to prisoners, pretrial detainees and anyone who has served their time.

People just want to return to parole, get out and look forward to the rest of their lives,” Hernandez said.

Throughout the week, protesters held several noise demonstrations, chanting demands into a megaphone. Using a common direct action tactic, the protesters blocked the buses transporting prisoners to the work sites. At night, they played music and projected Inside Out and Deadpool, hoping to reach the prisoners.

“We see you, we love you,” Hernandez said into the megaphone so the prisoners who were being transported early in the morning could hear.

Hernandez, who is running for a county soil and water conservation seat, came back to the camp between work shifts and slept there every night.

“The funniest part is that they tell us to get a job,” she said, referring to the security guards. “We all have jobs. They are the ones leeching off our tax dollars.”

Karen Smith, one of the main organizers of the protest, said prisoners demanded better treatment at the camp and an end to contacts help by UF and the city that use unpaid prison labor. Other demands from local prisoners included air conditioning and the reinstatement of parole.

The Florida Department of Corrections considers the Gainesville work camp to be the best situation an incarcerated person can find themselves in, mainly because it’s so selective: Inmates must have fewer than 10 years left on a non-violent sentence and a clear disciplinary history to qualify for camp designation. But activists and prisoners say that instead of focusing on rehabilitating — with the goal of eventually reintroducing inmates into society — the camp has prisoners clean up streets, pick produce and perform other manual labor.

As the truck pulled out of the gate Wednesday morning, Hernandez and 26-year-old Logan Marie, a founding member of IWOC, ran across the street in an attempt to block the truck’s path. They were able to stop the truck for around 20 seconds, during which they exchanged a few words with the inmates to let them know they were fighting for them.

“They had the biggest smiles on their faces,” Marie said. “I even got to give an inmate a fist bump.” •