It turns out there is something worse than prison: being in prison and being forced to work with few rights and pennies for wages.
Over the last three weeks, since its launch on September 9, an unprecedented nationwide strike of prisoners has involved more than 24,000 inmates in about 12 states, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. About 29 prisons have been involved, though some of this is hard for news outlets to confirm.
This week in Alabama, where the Free Alabama Movement of incarcerated workers has led the strike activities, prison guards even went on strike in solidarity and to protest related poor working conditions.
Pulling off the strike is impressive, given that word spread mostly through contraband phones and disseminated literature, and prisoners can and are facing retaliation for participation. In some prisons, strikers have not reported to work, and in others, there have also reportedly been peaceful demonstrations and hunger strikes. Still others have reported “preemptive lockdowns,” says Yes! magazine.
Today, prisoners in America have few if any labor rights. They’re not protected by federal employment laws or even the 13th amendment that banned slavery, according to the Marshall Project. That means they can be forced to work, even if they’re sick, and minimum wage laws don’t apply. The average prisoner pay is 20 cents an hour in state prison, and that wage can be withheld to pay for “room and board” and victims’ compensation. Three states don’t pay prisoners at all.
The strike launched on the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica prison uprising in New York. Today, the strikers’ demands vary by state, but in general they are asking for better pay, living conditions, rights, and educational opportunities. About half of the nation’s prisoners, or about 700,000 people, have daily jobs, according to the Marshall Project. Many help to run the prison, but a minority are employed by prison contracting programs that sell goods made inside the prison for profit.
“We make products for every type of business you can think of,” Free Alabama Movement cofounder and St. Clair Correctional Facility inmate Melvin Ray, told Waging Nonviolence. “[The businesses involved] understand that this is an operation of slavery and everyone is exploiting the free labor out of the prisons.”
The Marshall Project reports that the strike appears to be winding down, and in some places, prisons are cracking down. But even if their goals aren’t immediately achieved, the effects of the strike may be felt in the longer term. By costing states money, work strikes or slow downs can create incentives for better policies. And labor unions, which have traditionally ignored incarcerated workers, may start to pay more attention. Most importantly, this may be the largest strike to sweep prisons, but it wasn’t the first and it probably won’t be the last.
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