Inmates in 17 prison across the United States have commenced a three-week strike in protest of prison conditions, which many of them say are equivalent to “modern day slavery.” Prisoners will take part in hunger strikes/sit-ins as they battle for reform, better rehabilitation programs, fair wages for their labor, and the abolishment of ultra-long sentences. The strike is expected to last until September 9.
In certain Southern states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, prisoners are not compensated for their work. In addition, some prisons have labor programs which are voluntary, while others are forced into the programs, where they often must do very dangerous jobs. For example, some of the prisoners fighting the raging wildfires of California are making less than $2 a day. With the little money they have, inmates are faced with the choice of buying price-inflated food and sanitary items from the commissary, or to make exorbitantly expensive calls to family and friends.
Those most impacted by our broken criminal justice system are the closest to the solutions — incarcerated leaders have launched the Nationwide #PrisonStrike to advocate for a transformative policy agenda to end the system that has imprisoned them. https://t.co/I14tSRRJbM— ACLU (@ACLU) August 21, 2018
U.S. Inmates plan nationwide prison strike to protest labor conditions. pic.twitter.com/5ah9vMzQbp— The National Desk (@TND) August 22, 2018
On August 21, the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak put out a press release detailing the 10 demands that incarcerated leaders agreed upon to stimulate proper reform. Demands of note include #2, which asserts that all prisoners must be paid the “prevailing wage” for the area in which they are incarcerated. The prevailing wage is defined as “the hourly wage, usual benefits and overtime, paid in the largest city in each county, to the majority of workers, laborers, and mechanics.” In some states, that amount works out to be as much as $35 an hour. Then there’s #4, which states that “no human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole,” which essentially means the end of life or very long sentences. Lastly, demand #10 argues that those currently in prison, as well as ex-felons, should have their votes counted in all elections.
PRESS RELEASE:— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak – #shutemdown2021 (@JailLawSpeak) April 24, 2018
NATIONAL PRISON STRIKE AUGUST 21-SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018 pic.twitter.com/Mzbb4e96yp
“I think the outcome is likely to be greater public awareness about the difficult and inhumane conditions that many prisoners face across the country—an elevated public attention to the broad issues as well as some of the more specific concerns that prisoners themselves have raised,” said Toussaint Losier, author of Rethinking the American Prison Movement. “One of the difficult problems is that many of the issues that they are looking to address are issues of legislation and policies enacted at a federal level. It’s difficult for prison officials to make headway on that level.”
In order to aid prisoners in getting their voices heard, many of the social justice conscious citizens of the United States are holding rallies in solidarity with the prisoners, so that actual changes in legislation have a better chance of occurring.
Also significant is the timeline of the strike, as the first day, August 21, was the 47th anniversary of the death of civil rights activist George Jackson, founder of the Black Guerrilla Family, who was killed by prison guards. The final day of the strike, September 9, is the same date as New York’s Attica prison riots, which occurred the same year as Jackson’s death. Incarcerated leaders agree that the single event that inspired the current strike was the April 15 prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, where 7 prisoners died and 22 more were injured.
The current prison strike is one of the largest ever. Work stoppages, hunger strikes, and boycotts, all to bring attention to the epidemic of deaths in custody, forced and underpaid labor, lack of rehab services, and lack of medical treatment for mentally-ill prisoners. pic.twitter.com/eJ5cVtt4Tf— The Decolonial Atlas (@decolonialatlas) August 23, 2018
"Our dollar is our vote in this system, and when we choose to buy clothes or fast food or get our insurance or our gas in places that participate in prison slave labor, then we are fueling that system and allowing it to persist." – #August21 prison strike organizer @SawariMi pic.twitter.com/aiuRoyRlGZ— Democracy Now! (@democracynow) August 21, 2018
Recent years have also seen the massive rise in the privatization of prisons. As per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, private prisons are “facilities run by private corporations that contract beds and services to state governments or the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” and they make up a gigantic industry. In fact, according to market research firm IBISWorld, private correctional facilities are a $4.8 billion industry with profits of $629 million.
“Our dollar is our vote in this system, and when we choose to buy clothes or fast food or get our insurance or our gas in places that participate in prison slave labor, then we are fueling that system and allowing it to persist,” said strike organizer and Jailhouse Lawyer’s Speak spokesperson Amani Sawari in an interview with Democracy Now! For the average citizen who may not have the time or resources to support the prisoners’ rights on a larger scale, that may be their best bet. You can easily find multiple lists online that showcase what companies utilize such labor.
However, some argue that this labor is just punishment, and point to the fact that the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution actually does state that slavery is still lawful “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Have we progressed enough as a country that we can ignore or change the laws of yore to adapt to the times? Or are they still solid, patriotic guidelines that prisons and companies should feel free to utilize as they see fit? Let us know what you think in the comments down below!