This weekend marked the end of a national prison strike by thousands of inmates in at least 11 states across the country. When millions of Americans celebrated Labor Day one week ago, detainees in U.S. prisons demanded, among other things, the elimination of free or cheap labor that allows inmates to be paid as little as two cents per hour.
This practice is sanctioned under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which officially abolished slavery in 1865 but made an exception with regards to detainees: “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Since African Americans, Latinos, and natives are disproportionately represented among the U.S. prison population, it is not surprising that prison labor is often referred to as “slave labor.” Even though working in prisons is considered a privilege, because it is a way to gain marketable skills, the negligible pay is reminiscent of exploitative practices that benefit the status quo.
Other demands put forth by prison strike organizers, according to a press release by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) representing a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina, include more humane conditions, rehabilitation services for all prisoners, sentencing reform, voting rights for inmates, and the removal of barriers for prisoners who want to file a federal lawsuit.
This national strike was organized in response to a riot that erupted in April in the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, that left seven inmates dead and many more injured. The end date, September 9, marks the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York State, which left a total of 39 people dead and exposed a myriad of human rights abuses unleashed on inmates by guards and correctional officers.
The United States has one of the least compassionate criminal justice systems than any other Western democracy. Not only does it incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prison population, despite representing only 5 percent of the total global population, but it is also the only country that allows minors to be sentenced to life without parole.
This recent strike played out in different ways. Some prisoners refused to perform their work tasks, while others stopped buying items from the commissary or went on a hunger strike. Organizers, and those who joined the protest, expected retaliation and harsh punishment. According to media reports, this is exactly what happened over the last two weeks.
In a Democracy Now segment aired on August 30th, host Amy Goodman spoke to Amani Sawari, a prison strike organizer working on behalf of JLS. Sawari said that one of the organizers in a Texas prison was moved into solitary confinement in a concrete cell with the temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Other forms of retaliation have included daily strip searches and loss of communication privileges with the outside world, including family visits and phone calls.
Lack of information on what happens inside prisons is part of the problem when reporting on these issues. For a few days after the strike was launched on August 21st, the Organizing Committee for Incarcerated Workers kept fresh information on their website. As the days rolled on, updates became less frequent. In a compelling article in the Columbia Journalism Review, the authors say media access to prisons during the strike was even more restricted than usual.
What is remarkable nevertheless, is the level of activism generated around this prison strike. It has included a social media campaign with the #prisonstrike hastag, an informational video, a call to action for protests outside various detention facilities, call ins to prison officials, support letters to inmates, and letters to companies that use prison labor, including Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Victoria Secret, AT&T and others.
The strike has also triggered a considerable amount of media coverage, both in the U.S. and abroad (see The Guardian and Telesur), on the demands put forth by prisoners. Hopefully, it has also ignited more conversations around the fairness of current prison labor policies, treatment of inmates, cost of goods and services inside prisons, voting rights, and sentencing reform.
But there is only so much that can be done from inside prisons. Meaningful criminal justice reform must be spearheaded by legislators and concerned citizens at state and federal levels.