Thousands of inmates in state and federal prisons in up to 24 states are planning an organized strike and protest on Friday — potentially the largest prison strike in U.S. history. Planned for the anniversary of the Attica Prison riot, the protest aims to bring widespread attention to inhumane living conditions, “slave-like” labor, and daily injustices that plague the shadowy cell-blocks of the justice system.
Across the country, it’s common practice for American inmates to be forced to work in “slave-like” conditions, doing long hours of hard labor with little or no compensation, and they’ve had enough. Though the strike on Friday, as planned, is the largest yet, the national prison work stoppage comes after a long, largely unreported build-up in collective action among America’s prisoners protesting these conditions.
In 2010, thousands of inmates at 10 different facilities throughout Georgia refused to leave their cells to protest unpaid labor — which is the standard in Georgia. They demanded wages for their work, along with other grievances around education, communication with their families, meals and solitary confinement. In 2011 and 2012, prisoners in California, Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina waged hunger strikes. In 2013 in Northern California, nearly 30,000 prisoners went on a mass hunger strike. Throughout 2014 and 2015, planned work stoppages, hunger strikes, and riots happened in prisons in Alabama, Illinois, Washington, Georgia, Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Utah.
The movement accelerated this year. In March, thousands of inmates in Michigan launched a hunger strike over the deplorable quality of their food, a strike which quickly spread to two other facilities in the state. In April, inmates in Texas participated in a mass strike protesting health care costs, inability to credit work time towards their parole, minimal compensation and extreme, sometimes deadly, heat. They refused to leave their cell, stopping their normal production of goods including mattresses, shoes, furniture, and textiles. Then in May, hundreds of prisoners in Alabama declined to work; normally they made license plates and bedding, and worked in recycling and canning factories for a pittance of 17–30 cents an hour. And in June, prisoners in Wisconsin staged a hunger strike against solitary confinement.
While these actions seemed disconnected on their surface, the movement has become more and more organized as the momentum grew, culminating in the mass work-stoppage planned for September 9.
Because of the sheer number of states and facilities that are taking part in the event, the specific grievances and the tactics planned to bring attention to them vary.
In some southern states, the prisoners are protesting excess heat. In Texas, for instance, the temperature in prison cells without air conditioning reportedly rises up to a deadly 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Inmates in Wisconsin and Ohio are protesting indefinite solitary confinement. As prisons across the country have been documented forcing inmates to drink contaminated water and eat rotten food, some protests will seek to call attention to the food and drink served to prisoners — often by private contractors who profit off the deal. In Michigan, a prison food vendor served inmates refrigerated meat, trash, and rat saliva. The replacement wasn’t much better.
But one grievance is common to all the prisoners: unpaid or poorly paid prison labor.
“Prisoners make traffic signs. They make license plates. They make sheet metal. They work in shoe shops. Prisoners do all kinds of things and they’re not being paid for it,” Siddique Hasan, a self-described revolutionary previously told ThinkProgress’ Carimah Townes by phone from Ohio’s supermax prison. “These corporations come to the prison and get contracts with them and get cheap labor so they don’t have to pay traditional workers. Prisoners get no social security. They get no overtime.”
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a project started by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which is helping to coordinate the work stoppage, describes the strike as a “call to action against slavery in America.” It’s not hyperbole: Thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment, prisoners are explicitly exempt from the ban on slavery in the United States.
In some states, prisoners aren’t paid for their labor at all. In others, they’re paid pennies per hour — too little to be able to cover what the prisons charge them for phone calls, commissary items, or medical attention. Prison authorities claim the work is rehabilitative and builds prisoners’ skills, however, the cheap or free labor also feeds into a multi-billion dollar industry. Corporations contract with prisons, which then receive large kickbacks, to make products for far cheaper labor costs than they can legally get anywhere else. They then sell the products for market value.
McDonalds, Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and the U.S. military have all used prison labor and made huge profits. States also save millions by employing inmates for little or now pay, who do most of the work of upkeep of prisons themselves.
Now, prisoners have had enough, and are demanding fair pay for their labor. In conjunction with the build up and the work stoppage, protests, actions, and demonstrations on the outside have been happening across America, attempting to bring attention to the injustice — and the movement to stop it. Prison labor makes billions for America’s corporations, so while the strike may be happening behind prison walls, its effects could ripple up through Wall Street if sustained long enough.
“Prison impacts everyone,” asserts a statement from the IWOC. “When we stand up and refuse on September 9th, 2016, we need to know our friends, families and allies on the outside will have our backs. This spring and summer will be seasons of organizing, of spreading the word, building the networks of solidarity and showing that we’re serious and what we’re capable of.”
As information emerges about the national work stoppage, this post will be updated.