A nationwide strike demanding major reform within the US prison system began August 21st and is set to end September 9th, the 47th anniversary of the infamous uprising at Attica prison in New York state.
Hunger strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts are being staged. Efforts to get the strike off the ground have been spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a collective of self-organized, anonymous activists incarcerated across the country. JLS, along with other incarcerated activists, first planned to stage a mass protest at the beginning of 2019, but decided to move it to a sooner date after a riot at Lee Correctional facility in South Carolina left seven prisoners dead in April.
JLS enlisted the help of Amani Sawari, a writer for the prison abolition newspaper, “I Am We” to spread news of the strike to the outside world. Thanks to Sawari’s organizing efforts, news of the protest has spread across media like wildfire. And with the help of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, part of the socialist labor union IWW, the strike has accumulated over 150 endorsements from left-wing groups across the country. Inmates across 17 states are expected to participate, and many news outlets are predicting this to be one of the largest prison strikes in US history.
In their official statement to the press, inmates outlined their ten national demands. They include “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons”, as well as an end to the racial disparities and biases within the criminal justice system. However, arguably the most talked about demand has been for the abolition of modern day slavery, otherwise known as prison labor. According to the Marshall Project, the average prison worker makes around 20 cents an hour.
“Prison Slavery Exists”
In California, inmates are currently being paid a mere $1 an hour to put their lives on the line and fight the record breaking wildfires spreading across the state; meanwhile a professional firefighter doing the same work makes upwards of $75,000 per year plus benefits. This type of undeniable exploitation is completely legal under the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States “except as a punishment for crime”.
“Prison slavery exists,” Sawari argued in an interview with Vox.
“The 13th Amendment didn’t abolish slavery. It wrote slavery into the Constitution. There’s a general knowledge that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but if you read it, there’s an exception clause in the abolishing of it. That’s really contradictory — that something would be abolished and there would be an exception to that.”
Violence is also an extreme problem in US prisons, and in recent years it has only gotten worse. Many blame poor living conditions within the facilities, as well as overcrowding, understaffing, and housing rival gang members in close proximity, among other issues. At Lee Correctional Facility where the riots in April took place, one inmate stabbed another to death only two months prior. At another facility a mere 50 miles away, two inmates were charged with strangling four other inmates to death, purposefully and methodically, in their bunks. One of the inmates charged with the murders, who is a survivor of multiple suicide attempts, stated that he committed the killings to be put on death row.
So what is really causing this surge of violence among inmates? It all comes down to one thing— hopelessness. With acts in place like the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Truth in Sentencing Act, many inmates are left without any chance of parole or lessening their sentences. Couple that with downright inhumane living conditions, and no potential for earning a sufficient wage to provide themselves with even the smallest of comforts, let alone necessities, and even the most mild mannered person can be pushed to act rashly and without hesitation because he has nothing left to lose.
Inmates, just like everyone else, deserve a sense of autonomy. This begins with the right to safety, clean housing, and a fair wage. Only time will tell in the next several weeks to come whether the strike will be successful in beginning the journey to achieving these goals. In the meantime, as working class people who are also victims of the same capitalist system that is simultaneously profiting off the enslavement of incarcerated people, we must support our comrades in the fight for their liberation in every way we can.