National Prison Strike Begins Today

Beginning today, August 21, people incarcerated in at least 17 states will take part in coordinated non-violent actions to demand changes in the conditions under which they are held. The dominant strategy will be work stoppage organized in protest of unpaid or minimally paid work done by people incarcerated throughout the system. German Lopez, writing for Vox, explains.

“Prisoners want to be valued as contributors to our society,” Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, told me. “Every single field and industry is affected on some level by prisons, from our license plates to the fast food that we eat to the stores that we shop at. So we really need to recognize how we are supporting the prison industrial complex through the dollars that we spend.”

Prison labor issues recently received attention in California, where inmates have been voluntarily recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires — for the paltry pay of just $1 an hour plus $2 per day. But the practice of using prison inmates for cheap or free labor is fairly widespread in the US, due to an exemption in the 13th Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery but allows involuntary servitude as part of a punishment for a crime.

For Sawari and the inmates participating in the protests, the sometimes forced labor and poor pay is effectively “modern slavery.” That, along with poor prison conditions that inmates blame for a deadly South Carolina prison riot earlier this year, have led to protests.

In addition to work stoppages, people will engage in sit-ins, hunger strikes, and will encourage boycotts – though they ask people outside of prison to take direction on targets from those incarcerated.

The ten demands of the movement are:

  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded.


The full press release from the organizers of the prison strike is here.

The prison strike has been called from August 21 to September 9, dates that correspond to the three week period between the death of Black Panther and prison reform advocate George Jackson and the uprising at Attica State Prison in 1971. Since that summer in 1971, incarceration rates have increased dramatically in the United States, to the point where the U.S. is now the country with both the highest incarceration rate and the highest number of people behind bars.

Underlying these numbers is a vast network of for-profit companies that make money running prisons by providing “services,” and those that use the underpaid labor of those incarcerated to make products, grow food, and even fight fires.

A report from the Marshall Project on a strike called for September 9, 2016 states:

According to [data] from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 700,000 prisoners have daily jobs, helping to run a prison—mopping cellblock floors, mowing lawns, preparing and serving food. They act as GED tutors, they file papers in the chaplain’s office, and shelve books in the law library. A much smaller portion—an additional 60,000 inmates—participate in “correctional industries” programs designed to mimic real-world jobs; the federal prisons’ Unicor program, which had $472 million in net sales last year, is an example of these programs. An even smaller group (less than one percent of prisoners) work for free-world companies under the auspices of a federal program.

The Federal Program is the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIE) which

provides private-sector companies with incentives to set up shops in prisons using inmates as employees. States offer free or reduced rent and utilities in exchange for the decreased productivity that comes with bringing materials and supplies in and out of a secured facility and hiring employees who must stop working throughout the day to be counted and who are sometimes unavailable because of facility-wide lockdowns.

We stand in solidarity with people who are incarcerated, and whose humanity deserves to be respected. We join in their demand that public policy be built around that respect.

We will report on events as they unfold throughout the strike.

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