‘Modern Slavery’: Over 2M Inmates Strike For An End To Prison Labor

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What could be the largest prison strike in U.S. history hopes to see better prison conditions and an end to prison labor in exchange for miserable wages.

On Tuesday, the 47th anniversary of Black Panther George Jackson’s death, inmates nationwide began to stage a prison labor strike over what they call “modern slavery.”

Jackson was killed as he tried to escape the prison yard of San Quentin, California. But this year’s mobilization was first triggered by the deaths of seven inmates in South Carolina, who were the victims of the most deadly prison unrest in America in a quarter of century.

After a gang fight erupted over contraband, prison guards reportedly sat on their hands, doing nothing to stop the blood bath.

During the next few days until the scheduled end of the strike on Sept. 9, the 47th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion in upstate New York, prisoners will not work and will even go on hunger strikes.

But as prison kitchens remain unused for 19 days of peaceful protest, laundry is left unwashed, lawns uncut, and prison corridors un-mopped, the over 2 million incarcerated men and women across the country also brace for potentially negative consequences as they enter what could be the largest prison strike in the whole history of the United States.

Planned and led by the group of prisoners Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the strike is meant to pressure the government to improve their conditions and bring the practice of putting inmates to work for as low as 4 cents an hour to an end.

“Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue,” a statement released by the group reads. “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. Prisons in America are a warzone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”

Their demands include the end to life without parole sentences, the end to the disenfranchisement of millions of individuals with felony convictions who lost their voting rights, more government funding for rehabilitation services, improved prison conditions, and an end to imposed and sometimes compulsory labor in exchange for miserable wages.

Additionally, prisoners will also stage a boycott against services, such as collect phone calls and others that require inmates to pay, either by using money they earned from prison labor or by sending the bill to their families.

This practice, which is known as the “prison industrialized complex,” according to Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun of the Free Alabama Movement, should die out if inmates stop taking part in them. With that in mind, Ra-Sun came up with the idea of the boycott under the title Redistribute the Pain.

He urges inmates to save their money to by books, such as “Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration,” instead of spending it on the services that are making others rich.

Unfortunately for the inmates trying to engage in peaceful calls for change, the retaliation has already started.

The head of the Gainesville, Florida, chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Karen Smith, told reporters that before the strike began, most of the local strike organizers had been thrown in solitary confinement. Prison authorities then warned inmates that if “they continue to contact advocacy groups they will be moved to the most brutal camps,” she added.

Unfortunately, because communications will certainly be blocked, there might be a blackout of news coming from prisons, and the outside world may not have access to information on how they are doing.

In the past, strikes were met with lockdowns of entire institutions, but other retaliatory practices, such as throwing participants in isolation cells, could be put in action.

The 1971 Attica riot was started by inmates seeking basic political rights as well as better prison conditions. Four days later, then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent in armed police who killed 29 inmates and 10 of their hostages.

According to author Heather Ann Thompson, the writer of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971,” the fact this strike is scheduled to end on the anniversary of Attica is symbolically important.

“Attica drew a line in the sand — it was a recognition that people have a right to rebel, and will rebel, when they forced into unbelievably horrific conditions,” Thompson said.

While nobody is expecting this strike to end as the Attica uprising did, especially because an oppressive and deadly response to a peaceful strike would certainly be met with a great deal of protest from everyday Americans, it’s painful to think that to this day, prisoners still have to fight for basic human rights. And what’s worse, that unlike free Americans, they do not have the protection of the U.S. Constitution when it comes to forced and slave labor. The 13th Amendment of the U.S. constitution banned slavery and involuntary servitude unless it is used “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This is a reality that should bring every single American to feel ashamed and, therefore, compelled to look further into the inmates’ demands as a means to help understand their plight.

Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

 

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