Today marks the end of the first week of a multi-state prison strike, organized with a list of demands that can be effectively summarized by one simple point: incarcerated people must be treated with the dignity, fairness, and respect that they are, by tint of being human, due. The organizers’ list of demands includes an end to modern-day prison slavery, improved prison conditions, an end to life without parole sentencing, increased funding allocated to rehabilitation services, and the termination of felony disenfranchisement.
The catalyst for the strike was a deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April. Seven prisoners died, making it the most deadly unrest in an American prison in more than 25 years. It lasted for over seven hours. Prison guards did essentially nothing to quell or stop it.
The modern-day slavery practiced throughout the nation’s prisons has been the subject of ire and protest for years. “Slavery persists by another name today,” write David Love and Vijay Das for Al Jazeera. “Young men and women of colour toil away in 21st-century fields, sow in hand. And Corporate America is cracking the whip.”
In 2016, a nationwide labor strike was organized in protest of scant — or nonexistent — wages. That strike saw more than 24,000 incarcerated people refuse to show up to work across 12 states. It was coordinated out of Alabama’s Holman Prison.
Thanks to the 13th Amendment, it remains legal for incarcerated people to be forced to work for no pay. Mandatory work programs in federal prisons can pay up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour; state prisons average roughly 20 cents an hour. In some states, including Georgia, prisoners are not paid at all for their labor.
The phenomenon of prison slavery worsened in 1979, with the advent of the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, which allowed US companies to use prison labor for the first time. As the prison population began to boom, so did business: companies who participated early on in the program saw their profit margins shoot up. Business is still booming: in 2015, 60,000 prisoners generated $472 million in sales through their participation in the Federal Prison’s Unicor program, where men and women manufacture items ranging from eyeglasses to furniture. In 2016, the program brought in $500 million.
Wages allow incarcerated people access to myriad items, many of which are necessary for basic functions. In Georgia and Alabama, because prisoners are forced to labor for free, they are — theoretically — given the supplies they need. But it is substantially more onerous for people who have no wages, and no outside support, to survive in prison. The food served is often inadequate; the Southern Center for Human Rights receives frequent complaints about a dearth of edible food, servings that do not add up to a healthy daily caloric intake, and rigidity surrounding special diets in most state prisons. In Alabama, prison chefs describe receiving food — destined for the prison cafeteria — marked with “Not Fit for Human Consumption.” In December, The Atlantic reported that lapses in food safety have made prisoners six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population.
If you have the money, you can supplement your diet with food purchased — at a markup — from the commissary. If you are laboring for free, you must either rely on money being sent from family (who are likely already experiencing a financial burden as a result of their loved one’s incarceration) or you go hungry. The same applies to the basic hygiene and personal care items given. It’s also incredibly difficult to remain in contact with family and friends; calls come at a prohibitively steep price for those being forced to work for free.
Prison labor is directly related to convict-leasing, the American South’s answer to a huge shortage of labor after slavery was abolished. In 1898, convict leasing provided nearly three-quarters of Alabama’s revenue as a state. Today, majority Black and Brown prisoners in the state manufacture items ranging from desks to license plates for between .25 and .75 cents an hour.
This highlights a depressingly familiar American parable: we over-police and over-incarcerate men and women of color; we force them to labor for free or next to nothing; corporations and their wealthy (overwhelmingly white) leaders profit off of their labor.
Read more about the strike here.