On Sept. 9, the anniversary of a 1971 strike at Attica prison, there was a coordinated strike and protest in an attempt to bring attention to inhumane living condition, illegal reprisals, both most of all to bring an end to “slave-like” working conditions.
The September action didn’t come out of nowhere. Siddique Abdullah Hasan, an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary and a member of the Free Ohio Movement, describes it as just the latest part of “an ongoing resistance movement” that has seen increasing numbers of work strikes, hunger strikes, and protests hitting prisons across the country in the past decade.
So far, 2016 has brought a wave of new strikes, starting with inmates in seven Texas state prisons striking in April. Alabama inmates engaged in a work strike and protest in May, and since then there have been work strikes and hunger strikes in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania.
Due to the number of facilities involved in September’s strike, the list of grievances, as well as the list of demands, is long, and varies both state-to-state and prison-to-prison. But there is one issue that has driven the energy behind September’s actions more than any other: Prison labor.
Across the US, there are nearly 900,000 inmates who currently work in prisons. In states such as Colorado and Arizona, inmates earn as little as a few cents per hour for their work. In Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, incarcerated people are forced to work for free.
Most prisons force inmates to perform the basic facility maintenance—mopping floors, cutting grass, cooking, or washing clothes—that keep prisons running. A number of states and federally run prisons also use inmate labor to manufacture marketable goods and services. Some of this labor is outsourced by private corporations, including Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret, and AT&T Wireless, to name a few recognizable brand names.
Many assume that forced labor has had no place in America’s economic system since slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War. But the 13thAmendment, which constitutionally outlawed slavery in 1865 provides for some glaring exceptions. According to the amendment, “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.” In effect, the “punishment clause,” which sits between the two commas, opens the door for what many see as the continuation of slavery.
Organizing Inmate Labor
Organizing within prisons is notoriously difficult, and organizing across facilities even more so. In the lead up to September’s action, a number of groups coordinating with inmates, included numerous chapters of the Anarchist Black Cross and Free State Movements, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and their Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).
In May the IWW officially signed onto a call from FAM and the Free Virginia Movement to endorse the Nationally Coordinated Prisoner Work Stoppage on September 9. IWOC, according to their website, is “the largest prisoner’s union in labor history.”
Prison unions, like minimum wages for prison labor, exist in a legal gray area: the right of inmates to meet as a union or collectively bargain was effectively rejected by the Supreme Court in 1977, when the justices deferred to prison officials’ safety concerns.
Hope and Punishment
The prisoners who strike face serious, and likely violent, consequences. But today’s courage to organize inside prisons is inspired, in part, by the increased race consciousness and organizing momentum outside of prisons. Greg Curry, an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary, said, “Just as the Black Lives Matter Movement are saying to the cops and to society we ain’t having this no more.… It’s a new day. We’re saying that as prisoners it’s a new day. Just because we’re in prison we’re not going to accept this anymore. We’re fighting for our basic human rights.”