There’s a massive prison labor protest in the offing.
If plans go according to plan, a coordinated and rolling series of shut downs will begin September in prisons across the United States.
Prisoners are staging the walk out to protest “wages” as low as 20cents/hour. Even well paid prison jobs rarely pay more than a dollar an hour, before deductions. (The top earners in the Federal Prison Industries and UNICOR earn $1.15/hour, before deductions).
Supporters of the strike are arguing that prison labor is modern day slavery. I can’t argue with that. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, also maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in prisons. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of prisoners work in prison factories and the like. 21,000 alone work in the Federal system.
WHY DON’T WE SEE PRISON LABOR?
There are many grievances prisoners have with their detention. If outside society humors any of them, it usually humors calls for safe and sanitary conditions. Rarely, do you find outsiders calling for fair and equitable pay for the 40 hour weeks (or more) that prisoners work for pennies on the dollar. We make calls for secure and clean conditions because we’d not want to suffer squalor. Why then can we not make calls for the abolishment of legal slavery in the form of prison labor? Perhaps because we can imagine the smell of a putrid cell tier, but we cannot picture what prison work looks like?
Well, prisoners do everything from stuff mattresses to refurbish wheelchairs; make school dinners to shape Wendy’s and McDonald’s beef patties; stitch Victoria’s Secret panties to manufacture US military uniforms. Prisoners work as outsourced and subcontracted labor for corporations such as Boeing, Whole Foods, Walmart, Starbucks and Verizon. Prisoners man call centers for any number of private companies.
Prisoners work as operators at a call center in Snake River Correctional Institution. Perry Johnson Inc., a south Michigan based consulting firm has employed SRCI prisoners for over a decade. Little has been published online about the SRCI call center in recent years. Here’s a 2004 article about it.
Prisoners organizing the strike are not making demands or requests in the usual sense. They are calling each other to action in the hope that coordinated refusal to work will cause the prison industrial complex to creak so significantly that the nation will notice.
If critical mass is achieved, creaks and cracks will occur. A significant portion of America’s prison systems are built upon the cost savings, management philosophies and bottom line economics permitted by prison labor.
The planned action is essentially a good old strike, but of course, the repercussions for prisoners could be much more severe than the average worker: lockdown, solitary confinement and/or infraction charges that might jeopardize future parole.
WHY SEPTEMBER 9TH?
On Sept. 9th, 1971, prisoners shut down and took over Attica, New York’s most notorious prison. A total of 43 people were killed in the Attica prison riots—one of the darkest chapters in American penal history.
RECENT PRISON PROTESTS
Prisoners and their supporters can take heart and inspiration from prison strikes in recent years. The most well known would be the Prisoners Hunger Strike in California (2011-2013). The Free Alabama Movement in 2014 work stoppage garnered much attention. As did the 2010 Georgia Prison Strike. Hunger strikes at Ohio State Penitentiary, Menard Correctional in Illinois and at Red Onion Prison in Virginia flew under the radar of mainstream press. In December, women prisoners at Yuba County Jail in California joined a hunger strike in solidarity with women held in immigrant detention centers in California, Colorado and Texas.
Some actions have already kicked off in Texas.
There are many threads to the argument against prison labor, but none is better than outsiders making the leap to demand an end to exploitation that they would not tolerate for themselves or their loved ones. Remember, work programs and industries often operate in replacement of legitimate education and rehabilitation services.
Learn more at the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
Download the 2016 National Prison Strike pamphlet here.