One of the largest prison strikes in U.S. history started Aug. 21 and is set to last until Sept. 9, but no one will really notice, right?
Maybe this time people will.
This strike spreads across at least 17 prisons, and includes plans for peaceful protests by the inmates and a declaration of purpose that lays out what their grievances are and how they want them fixed.
There’s also media attention and a growing awareness of how prisons are run and how inmates get there.
The inmates request prison reform for issues like overcrowding and underfunding, access to rehabilitation programs, fair wages for labor, voting rights, and an end to over-sentencing and parole denials of Black and Brown humans.
The list could be dismissed as whining by people with no connection to the prison system, but just a quick look at news articles on the issues gives support to the complaints.
SLAVERY, WAGES AND FAIRNESS
As California’s largest wildfire on record swept the north part of the state this month, it was met by firefighters … and thousands of prison inmates.
The inmates receive the same training as firefighters, but are paid $2 a day plus $1 per hour compared to the firefighters’ $10.50 per hour, a California Dept. of Corrections official told the San Diego Union Tribune.
Critics can say that’s an equitable paycheck for prisoners because it’s on the high end of what many inmates are paid, if they’re paid at all.
But, on release from prison, the former California inmates who have trained as firefighters are disqualified from working as firefighters because there’s a required credential denied to anyone with a criminal record – so that avenue of rehabilitation is wasted.
With 30% to 40% of California’s forest firefighters being state prison inmates, according to Mother Jones magazine, this issue affects thousands of people.
Elsewhere in the country, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas do not pay inmates for most of their work.
Overall, nationwide, the average prison worker makes around 85 cents an hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Inmates call it modern-day slavery, but officials stand behind a legal exemption in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that allows involuntary servitude for those who convicted of crimes in the United States.
For many years, tough-on-crime personalities have said that prison life isn’t supposed to be fair.
Prison life has changed, though.
There many prisons that are operated by private companies that try to maximize profits. These companies may be paid by states and the federal government, and then also get paid by companies that want the inmates to manufacture products. Publicly operated prisons have been doing likewise.
“At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons operates a programme known as Federal Prison Industries that pays inmates roughly $0.90 an hour to produce everything from mattresses, spectacles,road signs and body armour for other government agencies, earning $500m in sales in fiscal 2016,” according to The Economist magazine.
The more inmates who can be packed into a prison, the more money the prison operator makes from the labor, and so the system suffers from overcrowding.
In addition to that, the prisons then try to get back as much money as possible from the inmates and their families via inflated charges for phone calls, letter-writing supplies, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and other commissary items not deemed necessities. Inmates may also be charged for medical care. Often, inmates rely on family to contribute money to a prison account.
(Note: The FCC has tried to lower inmate phone costs but has been blocked in court by prison phone companies.)
In cases where inmates are paying restitution to victims out of their earnings, the victims will almost never receive the full obligation.
DECIDING TO STRIKE
Planning for the strike started earlier this year following a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that killed seven inmates, organizers say.
A network of imprisoned prisoner rights advocates based out of there and calling themselves Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is leading the action with coordinating support from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prisoner-led trade group.
U.S. cities with participating inmates include Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; San Jose, California; Corona, California; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Omaha, Nebraska; San Antonio, Texas; Asheville, North Carolina; Black Mountain, North Carolina; Atlanta; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Boston; and Brooklyn, New York.
The strike was timed to begin on the 47th anniversary of the killing of Black Panther party member George Jackson by prison guards. It’s set to end on the anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising of 1971.
“Prisoner participation depends on their location and privilege status,” said Amani Sawari, a prison reform activist and spokesperson for the strike. “If inmates are working they can suffocate the prison industrial complex by reducing their spending. In some detention facilities, prisoners may not be working so they might do a sit-in. It all depends.”
Inmates plan to abstain from reporting to their assigned jobs, stop commissary spending, hold sit-in protests and refuse to eat during the strike.
The two-page National Prisoners’ Strike document can be viewed at https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018