Inmate Prison Strike Aims To ‘End Prison Slavery’

Inmates have gone on strike in prisons across the country to protest what they claim are unfair working and living conditions. The strike, which began on September 9, is said by organizers to be the largest inmate strike in American prison history, with inmates in as many as 24 states participating.

At the forefront of the movement are the core issues that define any strike – wages, hours, and conditions. The looming issue beyond that, however, is the specter of mass incarceration. According to Amnesty International, the United States prison population numbers some two million, 22 percent of the total inmate population of the entire world.

As pointed out by the Guardian, in federal prisons inmates can be paid as little as 12 cents per hour, with some state prison systems, such as those in Arkansas and Texas, not paying inmates for labor at all. Beyond the low wages, organizers of the strike have said that because of the cost involved in maintaining such a high incarceration rate, prisons would not be able to stay open at all without inmate labor. Inmates often hold all maintenance, food service, and domestic jobs within a prison facility, carrying out almost all of the day to day duties.

Inmates in a dormitory at San Quentin Prison in California

These tasks, which are carried out with little or no financial compensation, are also enforced by strict discipline. One of the main organizing groups behind the strike, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, itself a division of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, issued a statement in May in advance of the strike explaining some of the motivation.

“Prisoners are forced to work for little or no pay. That is slavery. The 13th amendment to the US constitution maintains a legal exception for continued slavery in US 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.” Overseers watch over our every move, and if we do not perform our appointed tasks to their liking, we are punished. They may have replaced the whip with pepper spray, but many of the other torments remain: isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and investigating our bodies as though we are animals.”

The strike also aims to adopt prison reform measures. As noted by the Root, demands vary from prison to prison and state to state, but inmates are also calling for reforms like GED and vocational training programs, a comprehensive mental health system, increased access to medical professionals and facilities, narcotics treatment programs, and a change in disciplinary measures, among other specific demands.

The aftermath of the Attica Prison uprising in New York, 1971

The prison strike comes on the anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison uprising in Attica, New York. In Attica, some 1,000 inmates rebelled against prison guards, demanding an end to racial discrimination and an access to healthcare. As described vividly in an NBC News editorial, the four-day standoff ended with police spraying tear gas into the yard and opening fire. In the ensuing massacre, some 43 people lay dead, and the surviving inmates faced increased brutality and even torture at the hands of the police and guards. The incident shocked 1971 America, and the shadow of the event clearly loomed large in the minds of inmates who chose to coordinate the modern strike with the Attica anniversary.

The inmates are supported by organizers on the outside, with many on social media rallying around the #EndPrisonSlavery hashtag and staging marches and protests in solidarity with the strike.

The Miami Herald reported riots at a Florida Panhandle prison the evening of September 8 in advance of the strike, which officials say damaged a number of dorms at Holmes Correctional Institution. However, most of the inmate strike conducted at prison facilities across the country involve sit-in style tactics, hunger strikes, and the refusal of work. The lasting effect of the ongoing strike is unknown at this time.

[Photo by Matt York/AP Images]