It’s easy to get overwhelmed by, and to lose track of, the news in 2018. But quietly in the background, some long-overdue prison developments have come to a head as those upset with conditions, fed up with low pay, disgusted with violence and feeling power in numbers decided to take matters into their own hands. The nationwide prison strike that began on Aug. 21 lasted 19 days; protesters released their demands after the successful first two weeks, and the strike ended on the anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison.
According to this summer’s organizers, “This is a growing movement and the Nationwide Prison Strike of 2018 is an unparalleled success for prisoner organizing in the modern era. However, it is important that in recognizing that success that we not lose sight of the demands that prisoners have laid out. Each of them is crucial.”
For anyone who’s been paying attention, the U.S. prison system is sorely in need of reform, yet for those in power it may seem the prison system is working exactly the way it was designed to work. The fact is, convicted individuals who are released after serving time struggle to overcome many barriers in order to find normalcy after life in prison. Those with a criminal record face challenges finding jobs and housing, while those with felony convictions are disenfranchised, losing the right to vote altogether. Put together, the conditions make recidivism more likely, further feeding into the prison cycle. Many freed prisoners find themselves back behind bars, wondering what chance they ever had to return to regular society.
At its core, the prison system is yet another example of how corrupt America has become. And in order to look at why and how the current system is failing, we also need to examine how it could be adapted to better suit prisoners in need. The nationwide prison strike of 2018 helped spark a discussion for the future of this institution across the country.
The failure of the U.S. prison system
Depending how you look at it, our country’s prison system is either a raging success, helping line the pockets of prison investors and those gaining from cheap prison labor, or a total failure for anyone unfortunate enough to be in it. Across the globe, the U.S. holds the record for the most incarcerated individuals – approximately 2.3 million people as of a March 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).
For every 626,000 people who leave the prison system every year, about 10.6 million get sent to jail in the same amount of time. The number of people coming in is so high because many of the people in jail have yet to be convicted; often they’re spending time behind bars without actually being proven guilty of a crime.
Modernized slavery within prisons
The prison industrial complex is built on a system of mass incarceration, forced (low-wage) labor and modernized slavery, as permitted by the 13th Amendment. The 2016 Netflix documentary “13th”, by Ava Duvernay, illustrates how this system came about and how slavery was never truly abolished but only evolved to adapt to modern needs.
Much of the current prison system exploits those struggling with drug addiction, mental health issues and poverty. Many of the laws around incarceration are targeted at policing communities composed primarily of people of color. Overall, about 40 percent of incarcerated Americans are black, despite their making up just about 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Poverty and the racial wealth gap also play a major role helping escalate the prison population. As PPI notes in its March 2018 study, over half a million people are in pre-trial jail, many of who are there due to an inability to pay bail.
Additionally, lack of funds can make it nearly impossible for prisoners to afford a lawyer, and court-appointed representation often comes at the hands of ill-prepared and overworked public defenders. If defendants do find a way to pay for a lawyer, they may still have to wait months or even years before their trial goes before a judge. During that time, they may either remain in jail or have to take out additional loans through bail bond agencies. They could also be let go from their job, further pushing them into poverty and desperation.
As the latest season of Serial Podcast highlights, following the court system in Cleveland, many trials rarely go to court. Instead, public defenders urge their clients to take plea deals in exchange for less time served, and judges often threaten defendants with lengthy prison sentences if they’re found guilty by a jury. Although trial by jury may be an American right, those awaiting trial are often discouraged from participating in it. All of this results in increased prison populations, especially among black Americans, and the wide-scale disenfranchisement of potentially innocent individuals.
The coal of the national prison strike
Those who took part in the National Prison Strike of 2018 were attempting to bring awareness to the inhumane treatment of American prisoners been over the past few decades. As prison populations have risen, conditions have worsened considerably as violence and tension between prisoners have increased. This is exacerbated by overcrowding and a general lack of humane treatment from prison officials, causing families of those behind bars to fear they’ll never see their loved ones again. The deaths of seven people during an uprising in a maximum security prison in South Carolina in April was the spark that ignited the current movement.
The strikers came from a variety of prisons – federal, immigration and state prisons for both men and women – and their goal was to get the attention of prison officials and lawmakers by issuing their 10 demands. The demands are as follows:
“Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
“An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
“The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
“The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
“An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
“An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
“No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.”
“State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.”
“Pell grants must be reinstated in all U.S. states and territories.”
“The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called ‘ex-felons’ must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!”