As wildfires rage across California, some of the people risking their lives to fight them are paid only a few dollars a day. These workers stand little chance of ever earning the $74,000 average salary California firefighters generally receive. While it may be hard to believe there’s an entire class of workers who are paid sweatshop wages in the United States, that’s the reality for 2.3 million incarcerated workers.
Slave wages are just one of the many reasons why incarcerated individuals in state, federal, and immigration prisons around the US are going on strike from August 21st to September 9th. The strike was organized in response to deadly violence at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina earlier this year, a result of the prison’s abysmal living conditions.
In an interview with Shadowproof, an individual incarcerated at Lee spoke of the prison’s dehumanizing environment. “We need open yards again, not just enclosed rec yards, we need these open rec yards again, where prisoners can move. We need prisoners to start being treated like humans.”
This month’s strikes are just the most recent in a long history of using work stoppages to resist abhorrent prison conditions. But they’re reflective of a shifting approach to organized prison protest, Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, says. Up until ten years ago, strikes generally happened on a prison-by-prison basis, Wright told Inequality.org. But new technology makes it possible to coordinate nationwide resistance.
A few decades ago, strikes were organized through phone calls and letter writing. But now organizers are able to take advantage of social media with contraband cellphones and the help of outside organizers. “I remember trying to organize statewide strikes in the 90’s and how difficult that was,” Wright says. “I think that a lot of the barriers are a lot lower now than they were 15 years ago.” This explains the increase in coordinated national actions. It’s how folks were able to organize the largest prison strike in the U.S. to date in 2016.
And now, in only four months, incarcerated organizers and outside allies are putting together an act of resistance that they hope will top their recent record. Organizers have a list of ten demands, which include the need for prompt improvement of prison conditions and policies. They also call for the “immediate end to prison slavery,” which is legal thanks to a constitutional loophole.
Language in the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery except “as a punishment for a crime,” which is how the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program was created in 1970. In theory, the program was meant to establish work opportunities for incarcerated people so that they could both earn money and develop skills, increasing their chances of getting a good job upon release. However, this is hardly the case. These work programs teach few relevant skills and, on average, pay less than $1 an hour, if they do pay at all.
Earned income is essential for folks on the inside because it allows them to buy necessities not provided by the prison, like soap, calling cards, and tampons. Incarcerated people are also required to offset the cost of their imprisonment, as a report from the Brennan Center for Justice details. The U.S. criminal system is filled with fees that shift imprisonment costs from the government onto the people accused of crimes, often leaving them with piles of debt when they leave prison. Fair wages during incarceration are doubly important due to the stark barriers to employment upon release.
Incarcerated workers deserve to be paid a prevailing wage, just like anyone else doing the same work. But there’s also an economic argument to be made about the benefit of paying such a wage that extends beyond the prison system. In 2000, five U.S. economists conducted a study on the impact of prison labor and found that it benefits the overall economy if incarcerated workers are paid more, given the opportunity to unionize, and have access to workers’ compensation.
While workers lose out, companies certainly turn a profit from the work of incarcerated people. For-profit corporations like Geo Group and Core Civic – formerly the Corrections Corporation of America – benefit from incarceration in general and prison slavery specifically. Over the years, many corporations – including Victoria’s Secret, Starbucks, Microsoft, Dell, Boeing, and Whole Foods – have also profited by paying incarcerated people substandard wages to do everything from sewing garments to producing plane parts.
Going on strike is the best way for incarcerated folks to contest the inequality they face and leverage what little political power they have. “Frankly, it’s the only way to challenge their slave status,” Wright says of the strike. Since there’s no legal or judicial way to challenge the institutionalized slavery through the courts in U.S. prisons, the only option available is for incarcerated workers is to withhold their labor.
National strikes also draw attention to an issue where media is generally silent. “Even in cases like the massacre that occurred in Lee County earlier this year prisoners were not given space to respond or share their experiences with the press,” Amani Sawari, an outside organizer for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, explained in an email to Inequality.org. “It wasn’t until the call for the strike that prisoners were beginning to receive media attention directly.”
Organizers are asking people to support the strike by educating themselves on the conditions in prisons and the list of demands put forth by incarcerated people. People can spread the word by posting stickers and flyers, using the hashtags #August21 and #PrisonStrike on social media, or organizing call-in campaigns and solidarity demonstrations.