Over 150 prisoner employees of Minncor, the state's prison industry program, have been on strike since March 4. Their principle demand is to be paid the minimum wage. Almost all prisoners in two 52-person units participated in the work stoppage, as did about a dozen other prisoners who attend educational programs. The authorities responded by locking down the two units. They then ordered a general shakedown, searching every prisoner in his cell, looking for contraband.
A third 52-person unit had already been locked down over the weekend when authorities began to suspect there might be a job action. Prison authorities suspended all visits and are holding the strikers incommunicado. According to prison spokesperson Rick Hillengass, the prisoners remained on lockdown as of March 11.
Among the products the prisoners make are three-ring binders and file folders which are then sold to other government agencies or to private companies within Minnesota. They also make non-tearable clothing intended for prisoners or mental patients deemed to be at risk of killing themselves.
According to Minncor CEO Guy Piras, prisoner wages start at 40 cents an hour with 10 cent raises up to $1. The average wage at Oak Park Heights is about 95 cents, with half of that being held back by the prison.
"The strike is a historic development," said Phil Wilayto, coordinator of the Milwaukee regional office of A Job is a Right Campaign. This group has launched a support effort for the strikers.
'The use of prisoners as contract labor is a growing and dangerous phenomenon which is a threat to unions and the jobs of all non-prison workers," said Wilayto, 'and it's a gross exploitation of prisoners, who are some of the most oppressed workers in society. To force these workers to take the jobs they were denied on the outside for a fraction of the wages is to return to a system of institutionalized slave labor."
On March 6, the third day of the strike, the A Job is a Right Committee faxed the prison's warden to demand that no legal or [illegal] physical retaliation be taken against the strikers and that the prison authorities immediately meet the demand of raising prisoner pay to at least the minimum wage. Copies of these demands were then faxed and e-mailed to area labor officials, the national AFL-CIO and to civil rights organizations. Local prisoner rights activists then e-mailed the demands to other activist groups around the country.
Among those answering the call for support was Workers World Party presidential candidate Monica Moorehead.
Although organized labor as a whole has yet to take up the issue of the rights of prisoner-workers, there has been a response to this particular strike.
"Already a number of AFSCME local presidents and vice presidents in Milwaukee and Madison have faxed messages of support for the strike to the warden," said Wilayto, 'as has the Black Student Union at UWM, the Prison Reform Outreach Organization in Minnesota and other progressive groups. We understand there will also be a demonstration March 16 outside the prison called by local prisoner rights activists. From our calls to the Oak Park Heights facility, we believe the prison authorities are taking this outside interest seriously."
[Editor's Note: Subscriptions to Workers World are available free to prisoners, though donations of money or stamps are appreciated. Write to: Workers World Party, 55 W 17th Street, Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10011.]
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