On Friday (Sept. 9) prison inmates across the US will participate in what organizers are touting as the “largest prison strike in history,” stopping work in protest of what many call a modern version of slavery.
The protest, organized across 24 states, is spearheaded by the inmate-led Free Alabama Movement (FAM) and coordinated by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a branch of an international labor union. Its manifesto, published online by “prisoners across the United States,” reads:
This is a call to end slavery in America…To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.
The strike will be held on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison revolt, when prisoners took control of a maximum-security correctional facility near Buffalo, New York, demanding better conditions and an end to their brutal treatment.
Today, nearly 900,000 US prisoners work while incarcerated. The Bureau of Prisons, which oversees all federal inmates requires that all prisoners (barring medical reasons) work. State prisoners are in the same boat; according to Eric Fink, a professor at Elon Law school, in all or nearly all US states prisoners must work. If they refuse, they can be punished with solitary confinement, revoking visitation, or other measures.
Inmates receive very little pay for their labor—in federal prisons it ranges from $0.12 to $0.40 an hour. In some states, like Texas, those held at state prisons receive zero compensation. The majority of inmates work on prison maintenance and upkeep—cleaning, cooking, etc.—but approximately 80,000 do work for the outside world. Sometimes these jobs are the result of government contracts; other times, prisoners end up doing work for private companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods or Walmart.
Unlike other American workers, these prisoners are not protected by labor laws. They don’t have access to worker’s compensation, they get payed well below the minimum wage, and they cannot effectively form unions. Courts have ruled that because the relationship between prisons and inmates is not that of an employer and a worker, inmates don’t get these labor protections.
According to The Nation, there is a faction among the organizers that would rather see prison labor abolished, but IWOC is pushing for inmates to unionize. “Prisoners are the most exploited labor class in this country,” says Azzurra Crispino, spokesperson for the organization.
The moral case to let prisoners unionize and have the protections given to civilian workers is straightforward: forcing people to work is inhumane, as are the ridiculously low wages and often the labor conditions themselves.
The economic case is much more complex. Prisons argue that paying inmates a minimum wage would bankrupt them—in fact, Alex Friedmann, an editor for Prison Legal News told The American Prospect that the criminal justice system would collapse without exploiting inmates. But prisons don’t exist in a bubble, their effects ripple across society. While economists have argued that prison labor in general has little potential to significantly add to the GDP, there are longer-term and broader effects to consider.
Higher wages can help not only inmates, but their dependents in the outside world, who might avoid ending up on welfare having greater support. Cheap inmate labor may save money for prisons or corporations, but meaningful, decently-paid employment and job training could reduce recidivism and future crime. Ultimately, it’s the taxpayers who pay for most of the criminal justice system, and that means they are subsidizing cheap labor for big corporations instead of investing in reducing crime in the future.
In addition to putting pressure on individual institutions, strike organizers are hoping to raise awareness among the public.
“Nothing is preventing employers from paying prisoners a decent wage and offering benefits and after 300 years it’s pretty clear it isn’t going to happen on its own. No more than slavery was ended in this country because slave owners got enlightened,” said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and prisoner rights advocate. “Alas, there is no General Sherman coming to rescue and liberate America’s prison slaves.”