“If I want to smoke crack, I can smoke crack right now. But as I’m talking to you, there are 96 men on both sides of me and not a single one of them can get access to a book.”
-Melvin Ray, founder of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM)
So far this month there have been two historic strikes on opposite sides of the world. On September 2nd, what was claimed to be the biggest general strike ever took place in India, with as many as 180 million people stopping work for 24 hours.
Although 10 major unions called the strike, it was done in solidarity with workers in the informal sector who collectively make up around 90% of the country’s workforce. These citizens live on wages as little as a third of those in the formal economy and lack basic protections against things like work related injury.
A week later, on September 9th, what may be the largest prison strike in US history began in some 26 states. As was the case with India’s general strike, North Americans relying on corporate media for their information probably aren’t even aware of these ongoing actions.
Unrest Behind The Walls
The day chosen for the strike in US prisons was symbolic, coming on the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising that ended with the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 hostages in 1971. Most of these died four days after the takeover, when authorities stormed the prison near Buffalo, New York, indiscriminately tear-gassing them from the air and entering the yard held by the prisoners in a flurry of gunfire.
In the years since the uprising, many commentators have criticized the actions of the authorities on that day, believing that their impatience caused the deaths of the hostages as well as most of the prisoners.
Sadly, many of the demands of today’s strikers are the same as those made at Attica all those years ago. These included visitation rights, access to healthcare and educational opportunities for the incarcerated.
With a renewed spotlight on the basic lack of fairness in the American criminal justice system over the last two years thanks to the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the ‘school to prison pipeline’ that disproportionately affects people of color is at last receiving some attention, at least on the left.
One of the results of the racially biased enforcement of drug laws, such as longer sentences for crack in comparison to powdered cocaine, and the outsourcing of jobs, is a new revenue stream for American corporations using the ‘surplus labor’ found in US prisons. In several states, including Texas and Arkansas, prisoners are paid nothing for their labor except ‘good time’ that’s supposed to reduce their sentences but in practice often doesn’t.
As Anthony Tarrant recently wrote, “disproportionately black and brown unemployed bodies that don’t make corporations a dime on the streets… can generate up to $40,000 a year processing meat for McDonald’s hamburger patties, staffing call centers or sewing garments, often through subsidiaries, for Victoria’s Secret, Nordstrom’s, Fruit of the Loom and others.”
The actions are taking place in as many as 50 facilities and also include noisy demonstrations by families of the incarcerated and activists outside prison walls. While the demands vary from institution to institution, the strikers are being represented by the IWW’s (Industrial Workers of the World) affiliate created to deal with organizing in prisons, the Incarcerated Worker’s Organizing Committee (IWOC).
Due to their circumstances, it’s difficult to know exactly how many prisoners are involved in the ongoing protests. Interestingly, social media use, while forbidden in many prisons and against the law in Alabama, is helping to get the message out in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.
A statement released by IWOC explains that prisoners “will withhold their labor from the jobs that they perform that keep prisons functioning… as well as manufacturing and agricultural jobs prisoners are forced to perform for corporate profit. Many prisoners will also be continuing hunger strike action and engaging in other forms of resistance.” This will result in a loss of privileges like phone calls and even solitary confinement for many of the protesters, itself considered torture under international law.
This is not the first time prisoners have struck in recent memory and, in certain cases, they’ve met with success giving impetus to the current movement. Widespread hunger strikes in California prisons protesting solitary confinement in 2011 and 2013, along with a class action lawsuit, are believed to have led to the reform of these policies, although state authorities have denied that they made the changes due to the pressure..
In Michigan, some 1,000 inmates throughout the state refused food beginning in March of this year over issues with the meals provided by a private contractor named Aramark Services, after “two years of news reports describing how the company served food tainted by maggots, knowingly served rotten meat, ordered inmates to serve food pulled from the garbage, and handed out food that was moldy or on which rats had nibbled.” Amid this and other scandals involving the company, the state’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder was forced end the company’s contract.
The main thrust of this larger strike is to end what organizers call modern day slavery in the prison system. Although the 13th amendment to the US constitution ended slavery by banning “involuntary servitude”, the one exception to this is that it doesn’t apply to prisoners forced to work, “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. (https://theintercept.com/
Histories of Injustice
In practice this meant that after the Civil War large landowners in the south could contract with prisons for what amounted to a continuation of slave labor. Although the contemporary prison population cuts across ethnic lines, as noted by the Harvard Law School Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, it’s also true that “there are more Black people in prison, jail and on parole in this country today than there were living under slavery a decade before the Civil War.”
One of the most common arguments made to defend prison labor is that it gives the incarcerated skills that are useful when they’re released. Besides the fact that some of these jobs could be made available to the unemployed outside of prisons, many of the private sector jobs done inside prison walls are possible only because of the low to nonexistent wages.
Take for example, call center work. As explained by Wired magazine in 2004, “Ten states, including Oregon, employ inmates in for-profit call centers… Inmates are paid between 12 cents and $5.69 an hour, according to Bureau of Prisons statistics.” Any skills gained in this work will likely be useless to inmates upon their release as many of these jobs have been outsourced, ironically enough, to low wage countries like India.
Of course, if prisoners were paid real wages for their labor not only would this allow them to save for their re-entry into society, they might also be able to pay compensation to the victims of their crimes. Many prisoners are released without the money to find housing and wind up homeless or living in shelters, making them more likely to re-offend.
Although the policies of mass incarceration are much more entrenched in the US, this doesn’t mean that its the only country with a racialized justice system, there is at least one prison in Australia striking today and similar actions have been reported in some Canadian prisons over the last few years.
Just as African Americans and other minority groups are over-represented in US prisons, in both Australia and Canada, indigenous people are far more likely than their white peers to be locked up. In the former, indigenous people account for 2.5% of the population and make up 24% of the prison population. In the latter, indigenous people make up 4% of the population and are 23.2% of the prison population. For aboriginal women in Canada the number is even higher, in 2010/2011 they made up 41% of the female prison population in the country.
Although there are those who don’t care about incarcerated people and believe that punishment is the only purpose of prison, there are many prison guards who feel that the conditions prisoners live in are making their jobs harder and more dangerous. As the founder of TOPS (The Ordinary Peoples Society) Rev. Kenneth Glasgow told USUncut in a piece published the day the strikes began, “Correctional officers themselves are starting to side with the inmates when they look at the deplorable conditions and working without any pay. Some of the guards are understanding of the fact that they have been put in just as bad of a situation as the inmates.”
The idea of rehabilitation, today taken up by activists calling for transformative justice, is one that has been lost in an era when cynical politicians call for longer sentences, even for nonviolent crimes. It’s no surprise that this just happens to enrich some of their donors, including private prison companies like Geo and CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), which are now expanding at an unprecedented rate to house undocumented people, who will no doubt be put to work in America’s ever expanding, for profit, gulag.