(reprinted from September 2018 issue of The Organizer newspaper)
By MYA SHONE
On September 9, 24,000 inmates in at least 12 states refused to show up for work. Their bold action was the culmination of a 19-day prison strike in which federal and state prisoners as well as immigrant detainees took part at great risk to themselves in work stoppages, commissary and phone boycotts, and hunger strikes.
Organized initially from Holman Prison in Alabama by the Free Alabama Movement and spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, planning began earlier this year in the aftermath of tragic deaths at Lee County Correctional Institution in South Carolina, where prison authorities housed rival gangs together and then stood by as almost 50 inmates lay bleeding — seven of whom died from severe blood loss.
A network of prison groups developed that produced 10 national demands focused on humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, regaining the basic right of citizens to vote*, and an end to modern-day slavery, such that prisoners “must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
At least half of the nation’s 1.5 million federal and state prisoners (this number excludes 713,000 in county jails) have a job within the prison walls. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 700,000 have daily jobs crucial to the overall functioning of prisons while 60,000 work for “correctional industries,” including the $500 million federal Unicor program and private corporations.
The Marshall Project** notes that “despite the fact that prison workers meet many of the standard tests by which courts establish employer-employee relationship, courts have consistently ruled that prison workers are not employees, and as such they’re not entitled to any of the protections that free-world workers take for granted; they are not free to leave a job if they choose; they don’t have access to worker’s compensation or disability pay in the event of an injury, and they’re not allowed to organize a union.”
Above all, the prisons and prison industries do not have to pay minimum wage — or any wage at all. The average pay for a prisoner working in a state prison facility is 20 cents an hour with the pay as low as 4 cents an hour in Louisiana. The typical wages in the federal Unicor program vary from 23 cents up to $1.15 per hour, but up to 80% of wages can be withheld to pay for the costs of incarceration (euphemistically called room and board) as well as for victims’ compensation. Even these low wages are denied to inmates in three states — Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas.
Slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished in the United States in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with a notable exception: “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Southern states responded with what historian Douglas A. Blackmon called “an array of interlocking laws [Black Codes] intended to criminalize Black life.” Convict labor was sold to farms, factories, lumber camps, quarries, and mines. Although leasing of convict labor was abolished technically in 1941, segregated prison gangs worked under overseers picking cotton without pay in Texas until ruled unconstitutional in 1980.
The criminalization of poverty, however, remains the order of the day, targeting the Black population in particular. In 2013, the Sentencing Project warned that “one of every three Black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime” and will be confronted with modern-day slavery.
Despite prison administration retaliation with 24/7 lockdowns, blackout of all light from cell windows, solitary confinement, transfer to supermax prisons, and the threat of expedited deportation for immigrant detainees, the largest prison strike in U.S. history unfolded.
The dates selected by organizers for the first and last day commemorated events 47 years ago — the assassination of Black militant George Jackson on August 21 at San Quentin Prison in California and the September 9 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York State that is now embedded in the history of struggle.
* 6.1 million ex-prisoners, who served time for felonies, are denied the right to vote indefinitely in four states and until they complete their probation or parole in others. Over 1.5 million are disenfranchised in Florida alone such that 1 in 5 potentially eligible African-Americans are removed automatically from the voting rolls. An initiative is on the November ballot in Florida to restore voting rights for most ex-felons.
** The Marshall Project, named for former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, is a news agency focused on the U.S. criminal justice system.