Right now, America’s prisoners are on strike. Protesting inhumane labor conditions that are tantamount to modern slavery, prisoners in 17 states are working together in solidarity to demand change.
Organized by workers both inside and outside detention facilities, spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), and supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), the strike began on August 21 and ends on September 9.
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These dates are significant: August 21 is when George Jackson was killed by prison guards in San Quentin, while September 9 marks the Attica Correctional Facility uprising in upstate New York.
Due to a loophole in the 13th Amendment, those convicted of a crime can be coerced into labor as punishment. This ‘prison slavery’ has become extremely lucrative too, generating an estimated $1 billion per year for the private companies and corporations that benefit from prisoners’ work.
In an op-ed for Teen Vogue, radical organizer Kim Kelly, explains:
Prison labor is used to manufacture a vast array of consumer goods, from Christmas toys and blue jeans to military equipment, lingerie, and car parts.
Incarcerated people also frequently serve as a captive labor force for prisons themselves as kitchen and maintenance workers, and for a variety of other services, from shoveling snow after a Boston blizzard to harvesting oranges in Florida. (California recently made headlines when it was revealed that it was using prison labor to fight its deadly wildfires, which it has done since the 1940s; the prisoners (which included some juvenile offenders) were reportedly paid $1 per hour plus $2 per day to risk their lives, and are barred from becoming firefighters after their release.)
Prisoners are paid very little for their work; the average wage in state prisons ranges, on average, from 14 cents to 63 cents per hour for “regular” prison jobs, and between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour for those who work for state-owned businesses, and while they are working full-time jobs, prisoners do not always have the benefit of basic labor protections, such as minimum wage, sick leave, or overtime pay.
Given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.3 million people currently behind bars, the prison industrial complex would collapse were it to pay incarcerated workers the minimum wage—which creates further incentive for them to keep locking people up.
While many prisoners do want to work while incarcerated as it gets them out of their cells, make purchases from the commissary, and send money home, not everyone has a choice.
According to Newsweek, some prisoners in eight states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas—are not paid at all for their labor in government-run facilities.
As Kim concludes, prison slavery is also inherently a labor rights issue.
“The fact that there are human beings housed in cages who are forced to work for slave wages is completely unacceptable by any metric, and fixing (if not completely abolishing) this wretched system should be a priority for those who consider themselves part of the labor movement, or on the right side of history.”