Report on the National Prison Strikes

From the November/December 2016 PNL #853

by Marlon Calliste

On September 9, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, a nationwide prison strike movement began. Thousands of inmates did not show up for work on that day, and protests continue as of this writing. Some correctional officers in Alabama even participated, refusing to show up to work in order to bring light to the inhumane living conditions inmates are subjected to. These protests are not a new thing: in 2010 a Georgia prison held a work strike in demonstration against harsh living conditions and the low, often non-existent compensation they received for their work. The current strike was organized and coordinated across 24 prisons in 12 different states, with the Free Alabama Movement (a group of inmates who are based out of the Holman prison in Alabama) acting as the lead coordinator of this massive project. Alabama’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and underfunded.

These protests are as much about poor prison conditions and overpopulation as they are about the labor rights of inmates. Many prisons require that that these inmates have a job. These jobs range from food preparation to janitorial duties, among others. When compensated for these jobs, prisoners receive far less than their unincarcerated counterparts: typically between 12 and 40 cents an hour. Some states, such as Texas and Georgia, do not even pay inmates and essentially use them as a free source of labor. In any other situation, this would be considered slavery—yet the United States has legalized and normalized this type of behavior. The 13th Amendment, despite legally outlawing slavery, contains the exception that in conditions of punishment for a crime, involuntary servitude is a legal and acceptable practice. This portion of the 13th Amendment has been exploited to the fullest extent. Prisons, especially privatized ones, are overfilling their facilities, well aware of the fact that they are gaining free labor that can be used to push profit margins to their absolute maximum. The fact that this labor force has very little legal recourse is an added bonus for prison operators, and until protests such as this become more commonplace and the public takes notice, this practice will continue.

Marlon is a student at SUNY Oswego and currently an intern at the SPC.