Historic Prison Strike Protests Legal Slavery

Sami Mericle, Opinions Editor

In the 21st century, it is unbelievable that much of the U.S. population can be legally enslaved. A national prison strike protesting just that has reached at least 29 prisons in 22 states, garnering appallingly little media attention since it commenced on Sept. 9. The strike was staged to commemorate the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising in New York that was violently squashed by state troopers, resulting in 43 deaths, without producing tangible improvements in prison conditions. Forty-five years later, prisoners are still protesting abhorrent conditions. While overcrowding and systemic racism sparked the Attica riots, at the forefront of this organized protest is the prison labor system that has been unfairly extorting prisoners.

An estimated 20,000 prisoners have refused to work at various points in the last seven weeks, as reported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a young branch of the international union Industrial Workers of the World. These numbers make this the largest prison strike in history.

Prisoners are protesting what the IWOC is rightfully calling “prison slavery.” According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all prisoners are required to work if medically able. Prisoners may be disciplined with solitary confinement or other punitive measures for failing to do their jobs. Many of these jobs are prison upkeep, including custodial and food service work. Others are part of the Federal Prison Industries program. Commonly called UNICOR, the program contracts with private companies to employ prisoners to do anything from sewing clothing to staffing call centers for as little as 23 cents an hour, far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25. For non-UNICOR jobs, prisoners may not be paid at all. And as abysmal as these wages are, they are often still subject to taxes and deductions such as victim compensation and child support.

This treatment is legal under two facets of the law. For one, courts have repeatedly ruled that prisoners do not qualify as employees, and therefore are not eligible for federal employee protections, including minimum wage and benefits. The second facet is, surprisingly, the 13th Amendment.

When the 13th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1865, a critical exception was included: “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.”

While the 13th Amendment may have formally freed African Americans from slavery, it is now allowing them to be enslaved in prisons: According to the nonprofit The Sentencing Project, more than 60 percent of prisoners are people of color.

When a person is convicted of a crime, we take away their right to freedom. But should they also lose their right to basic human dignity?

“Prisoners are on the front lines of wage slavery and forced slave labor where refusal to work while in prison results in inhumane retaliation and participating in slave labor contributes to the mechanisms of exploitation,” reads a statement on the IWOC website.

Meanwhile, supporters of prison labor assert that employment improves the day-to-day life of prisoners while training them for jobs post-release. The UNICOR website claims, “The whole impetus behind UNICOR is not about business, but about inmate release preparation.” There is some validity to that statement, as studies have shown that employment programs reduce chances of recidivism. However, programs should be non-mandatory, fully regulated for safety, pay minimum wage and treat workers with dignity.

The largest prison strike in history should be front-page news. The minimal media attention may be due less to editors’ cold hearts and more to tight restrictions on prisons. The press’ right of access generally does not extend to prisons, and what little information that has leaked out has mostly come from prisoners speaking on illicit cell phones, often on conditions of anonymity.

Fixing the prison slavery system will not be easy, as it’s inextricably tied to other problems of our prison and judicial systems including overcrowding and underfunding. Paying prisoners minimum wage for their work would likely cost millions if not billions of dollars. However, we need to continue to draw attention to this issue so this strike does not become another Attica, fading into history with little success at changing prison practices.