Uniting to strike against prison slavery

September 4, 2018

Joe Andrews reports on a nationwide strike of prisoners and the cruel conditions drove them to take action from behind prison walls.

THE NATIONWIDE prison strike now entering its third week is exposing conditions of modern-day slavery where prisoners work for little or no pay doing backbreaking and sometimes life-threatening jobs.

Prisoners called the strike, which began on August 21, in response to a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, in which seven prisoners were killed in April.

According to activists, prisoners in 17 states have taken up the strike call. The action builds on the recent legacy of a nationwide prison strike in 2016, in which 24,000 prisoners took part.

The coordinated actions by prisoners, which include hunger strikes, sit-ins and work stoppages, is scheduled to extend to September 9, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising in upstate New York. The demands of the strikers were intentionally drafted to loosely mimic those put forward at Attica.

Prisoners at work during the Thomas Fire outside Santa Barbara, California
Prisoners at work during the Thomas Fire outside Santa Barbara, California (Master Sgt. Brian Ferguson | flickr)

Those demands include calls to rescind specific prison legislation like the Truth in Sentencing Act, “so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole” and “no human shall be sentenced to death by incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole,” as the call states. Other demands include the right for all prisoners and former prisoners to vote and “an immediate end to all prison slavery.”

THIS LAST demand regarding prison slavery has received the most media and public attention — and for good reason.

As many prison activists point out, the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment abolishing slavery makes possible what some call the “punishment exception,” allowing unpaid labor to be imposed on those who are incarcerated.

While much of labor performed by prisoners is related to the functioning of the prison itself, outside corporations also take advantage of cheap prison labor.

The average pay for prison labor in the U.S. is 14 cents per hour for in-house work and 33 cents per hour for outside or “correctional industry” work, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In many Southern states, prison workers aren’t paid a wage at all.

On top of that, many states deduct money from prisoners for things like court-assessed fines and court costs, leaving them with less than 50 percent of wages on average. “I can only have $25 a month on my books because I owe court costs,” one prisoner serving five years in the Mansfield Correctional Institute in Ohio for a drug conviction said in an interview. “[We can make] $18 a month to buy food, hygiene, whatever.”

With their demand to end prison slavery, strikers are asking that “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,” giving them the means to attain basic necessities like food and hygiene products.

With prisoners assigned to fight some 19 wildfires burning across the state of California, the intense exploitation of prison labor is on full display.

Nearly 4,000 prisoners are being paid $2 a day plus $1 an hour to do the job their non-imprisoned counterparts at Cal Fire are paid a salary of between $31,000 and $78, 000 a year to do.

The state has a direct motive for paying prison workers so little: According to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Bill Sessa, this saves as much as $100 million a year in firefighting costs.

In other words, capitalism is destroying our planet via man-made climate crisis — and using prison labor to combat the destruction, rather than raising taxes on the rich or regulating their environmentally destructive production practices.

ECONOMIC CONDITIONS and the fight to end modern-day slave labor point to the exploitative reality of our prison system, but we must also reckon with the intersecting battle that those of us who oppose prisons are up against.

Who is the target of incarceration and prison labor? How did they get there? The answers explain why this isn’t just a battle about conditions and wages, but also about racism, immigration and class inequality.

There are two places where policing and surveillance reign supreme: in poor communities of color across the U.S. and at the nation’s borders. Therefore, the disproportionate number of prisoners subjected to prison labor are Black Americans and immigrants.

For instance, in Chicago, a 2016 report determined that Black residents were subjected to 72 percent of all police stops, yet constitute just 32 percent of the city’s population.

Nationwide, Blacks are incarcerated at a rate nearly six times the rate of whites, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

Additionally, those who immigrate to the U.S. are policed not only by local and state police on a regular basis, but by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to its own figures, ICE employs more than 20,000 people whose duty it is to ruthlessly hunt down immigrants and detain or deport them.

ICE detainees, in fact, are playing a key role in today’s prison struggle. At least 60 immigrant detainees at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, joined prisoners in their call for a national strike by launching a hunger strike and work stoppage.

Hunger-striking NWDC detainees stated in a letter released by NWDC Resistance:

We are taking part in a hunger strike nationwide demanding change and closure of these detention centers, we are acting with solidarity for all those people who are being detained wrongfully, and stand together to help support all those women who have been separated from their children, and to stop all the family separations happening today for a lot of us are also being separated and we have U.S. citizen children.

Still, we are being coerced into worker programs...we demand minimum wage. This is a private corporation and it is using slave labor to run its operations to capacity.

Solidarity with the strikers has also spread internationally. Rallies in support of prisoners have popped up across the U.S., but also in Europe and elsewhere.

The day after the strike began, a group of imprisoned Palestinians in Israel extended their support by writing:

Today, we extend our solidarity to the prisoners in the jails of the United States participating in the national prison strike beginning on August 21. Black communities, Latino communities, Arab communities are under attack, facing mass incarceration and a system that seeks to imprison and exploit rather than support and nurture youth and elders.

That the poor and oppressed are speaking out and standing up internationally to the pervasive practices of policing and imprisonment isn’t surprising. As Angela Davis wrote in her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, “What we often assume belongs most intimately to ourselves and to our emotional life has been produced elsewhere and has been recruited to do the work of racism and repression.”

This is why we fight together.

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