Advocates for prisoners’ rights and criminal justice reform have never forgotten the September 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, which resulted in the deaths of 33 prisoners and 10 employees. The institutionalized brutality at Attica, which led to the deadly riot and demands for improved conditions, continues to galvanize protests against injustices in the U.S. penal system. Attica ushered in the modern era of American prison reform. The backlash came in 1996; with over 41 prison systems and hundreds of jails under consent decrees or injunctions to improve conditions, Congress responded with the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limited the ability of the federal courts to improve conditions of confinement.
Yet even 45 years after the Attica rebellion, prisoners still have very limited means to mount protests and face disproportionate retribution from prison officials when they do stand up for their basic human rights. Some argue that the system of mass incarceration is specifically designed to destroy prisoners mentally and physically, and to frustrate them from exercising any means to redress their grievances via methods available to the general public – such as through the courts or political process. Further, it keeps the outside world from learning what actually happens behind prison walls.
Thus, once again prisoners have started to partner with outside organizations to publicize problems within the corrections system, including the practice of “prison slave labor” – defined as the exploitation of a free or cheap prisoner workforce, mainly to perpetuate mass incarceration by using prisoners to perform services needed to keep prisons running, such as preparing meals, doing laundry, performing maintenance, etc. Prison slave labor is also used to produce products for use within the prison system and by other government agencies through prison industry programs, and in some cases benefits private businesses that contract to use prisoners as low-cost workers.
It is estimated that the value of labor performed by state and federal prisoners alone exceeds $2 billion annually.
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), part of the Industrial Workers of the World, in conjunction with incarcerated activists, decided that September 9, 2016 – the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising – was an opportune date for a peaceful work strike to draw attention to conditions in correctional facilities nationwide, with an emphasis on the exploitation of prison slave labor. The IWOC noted that incarcerated workers receive meager, nominal wages or – in four states – no wages at all.
IWOC organizers contacted prisoners and their family members and friends through discrete mailings and phone calls, and networked with prisoners’ rights organizations, attorneys and local advocates. As a result of those combined efforts, organizers of the nationwide work strike claimed thousands of prisoners in at least 29 facilities in two dozen states carried out protest actions. Ben Turk, a member of the IWOC’s Organizing Committee, called it “the biggest prison strike in history.”
The epicenter for the protests was the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, where the Free Alabama Movement (FAM) had been founded by incarcerated activists. Some of the kitchen workers at Holman, and prisoners assigned to make license plates, refused to report to work during the September 9 strike.
As reported in PLN, prisoners at Holman had previously used cell phones to take photos and videos inside the facility, which they posted online in an effort to “publicly expose egregious conditions, including poor food, filthy housing units and ‘the inhumane, unconstitutional living conditions that prisoners inside the State of Alabama are forced to live under.’” [See: PLN, May 2016, p.1].
Holman is by anyone’s definition a violent facility, where fights and stabbings are commonplace and a guard, Kenneth Bettis, was murdered on September 1, 2016. Such dangerous conditions for staff and prisoners alike provide fertile ground for unrest and discontent.
While most of the September 9 protests were peaceful, some were not. There were violent incidents at several Florida facilities, including an uprising at the Holmes Correctional Institution on September 7 that involved over 400 prisoners and disturbances at the Gulf, Mayo and Jackson Correctional Institutions. Plus hundreds of prisoners protested at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan, which resulted in property damage; prison officials disputed whether the incident should be termed a riot.
The nationwide work strike was unlike previous protests organized by prisoners, including a work stoppage in Alabama prisons in May 2016; large-scale hunger strikes in California’s prison system in 2011 and 2013; and a widespread strike by Georgia prisoners in December 2010. [See: PLN, July 2012, p.32; Jan. 2011, p.24]. Additionally, earlier in 2016 there were protests over health care costs in Texas prisons, as well as hunger strikes by Michigan and Wisconsin prisoners.
What made the September 9 effort historic was that it was national in scope instead of being confined to a single state or facility; it also involved coordination with outside organizations, including the IWOC, the National Lawyers Guild and The Ordinary People Society, among other groups. Further, the work strike was open-ended and not limited to one day or a set time span, and protest actions occurred in prisons for several weeks afterwards.
“The fact that this was happening simultaneously in a number of states suggests a degree of planning and sophistication and community support that we haven’t see in recent years,” noted David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
While the work strikes addressed conditions of confinement, they focused on prison slave labor and more specifically the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Thus, the 13th Amendment did not abolish the institution of slavery but merely limited it to prisoners – who have been “duly convicted” and punished for committing crimes. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.26]. As the Virginia Supreme Court commented in Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 790 (Va. 1871), “a convicted felon has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all of his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords him. He is for the time being a slave of the state.” Little has changed in the interim.
“This is a call to end slavery,” the IWOC declared in a statement concerning the September 9 work strike. “They cannot run these facilities without us.”
“Without the use of low-cost or free prisoner labor, our prison system would grind to a halt – and prisoners are increasingly coming to that realization,” added PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, who was quoted by Vice News.
Most of the September 9 protests involved prisoners who refused to report for work. While the scope of the collective work strikes was largely ignored by the mainstream news media, the alternative media and advocacy organizations widely covered the thousands of prisoners who participated in solidarity with the protests.
Although corrections officials in Texas and South Carolina denied that any work strikes took place, their denials conflicted with reports by prisoners and outside observers. At some facilities, including in Florida, prison staff attempted to derail any protests by offering special meals on September 9, with the tacit understanding that if prisoners did not strike they would receive better food that day. Other prisons were preemptively placed on lockdown.
Both before and after the September 9 protests, prison officials predictably placed prisoners suspected of being ringleaders in segregation, or transferred them to other facilities.
Fueling the nationwide prison work strike were poor living conditions. Dozens of studies and reports have focused on high incarceration rates in the United States, which disproportionately impact minorities and almost exclusively the poor, and result in overcrowding and abysmal conditions of confinement. In an environment where prison labor is used not only to perform the daily tasks necessary to keep correctional facilities running, but also to benefit the prison system and for-profit companies, resentment is bound to simmer. PLN has reported extensively on prison labor and prison industry programs. [See, e.g., PLN, July 2016, p.26; Aug. 2014, p.28; March 2010, p.1].
Women incarcerated at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility in Aliceville, Alabama reported circulation of a one-page flyer promoting the nationwide work strike. The flyer prompted a frenzy of retaliation by prison officials; several prisoners were reportedly moved to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), while others were transferred to different BOP facilities.
Many prison systems, including the BOP, justify the existence of low- or no-wage prison labor by claiming that prisoners gain valuable work experience they can put to use after their release. Not so, says the Vera Institute of Justice, which has noted that while the prison experience is challenging for male prisoners, it is even more difficult for women like those held at Aliceville: “Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems designed primarily for men. As a result, many leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, as well as greater parental stress and financial instability.”
Given the risk of retaliation by corrections officials, as evidenced by the BOP’s actions at Aliceville, the level of participation by prisoners in the September 9 national work strike was a testament to their courage.
One Alabama prisoner, Robert Council, aka Kinetik Justice, who co-founded FAM, stated, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. The prison system is a continuation of the slave system. The reform and changes that we’ve been fighting for in Alabama, we’ve tried petitioning through the courts. We’ve tried to get in touch with our legislators.... We understood that our incarceration was pretty much about our labor and the money that was being generated through the prison system....”
PLN editor Paul Wright noted that it’s easy for corrections officials to take advantage of cheap prison labor. “Most people don’t think of prisoners as a vulnerable population, [with] high degrees of mental illness and social isolation,” he said. “It’s an easy population to exploit physically, labor-wise and by every other means.” He added that forced prison slave labor is considered a human rights violation when it occurs in other countries, yet is considered an acceptable – and routine – public policy when applied to prisoners in the U.S.
Not only do prisoners receive low wages or no pay at all, they are also forced to work under threat of punishment, including placement in solitary confinement; they are not considered employees, thus do not receive the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act; they are not allowed to unionize; and they often must work under unsafe conditions. Additionally, in many cases their meager paychecks are spent in the prison commissary on overpriced food and hygiene items – a practice akin to migrant field workers during the Dust Bowl who had to make purchases from the company store, as memorably described in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Reforming our nation’s penal system will require greater public awareness about prison labor and conditions within U.S. correctional facilities, and the September 9 work strike helped to achieve that goal. Realistically, the task of prison reform will most likely fall to those most affected by the current practices of prison slave labor, brutality and neglect: prisoners themselves.
But perhaps members of the public will heed the voice of Alabama prisoner and FAM leader Melvin Ray, who said, “This is something we have to do on the inside, regardless of what people think on the outside, but we would like people to know and understand what we’re doing here even if they don’t agree and support it.”
As just one example of how mass incarceration and conditions within our nation’s prisons have an impact beyond prisoners, in late September 2016, several weeks after the work strike began, a number of Alabama DOC guards at the Holman facility refused to report to work, apparently to protest violent conditions and overcrowding at the prison that put them in danger.
“The officers really understand [the prisoners’] reasoning even if they don’t agree with all of it and are just at the point where they don’t feel safe,” stated Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, a FAM spokesman.
If that’s how the guards feel, imagine the impact of overcrowding and dangerous living conditions on prisoners, who must endure those conditions for years or even decades while they work for pennies an hour to benefit the very system that incarcerates them – which puts the recent nationwide prison protests in a clearer context.
Sources: CNN, www.insurgenttheatre.com, www.freep.com, www.bbc.com, www.newyorker.com, www.takepart.com, http://hightimes.com, https://shadowproof.com, www.al.com, https://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com, www.fusion.net, http://countercurrentnews.com, www.commondreams.org, www.motherjones.com, www.truth-out.org, www.news4jax.com, www.9and10news.com, www.facingsouth.org, http://theinfluence.org, https://itsgoingdown.org, www.dc.state.fl.us, https://socialistworker.co.uk, www.vice.com, www.miamiherald.com, www.csmonitor.com, https://urbanmoney.org, www.wctv.tv, http://koin.com, www.buzzfeed.com, www.yesmagazine.org, www.wired.com, www.cbsnews.com, www.theintercept.com, www.wcmu.org
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